Friday, November 16, 2007

Staying in Character

No help for it. The Siren started to reply to the torrent of comments on comic character actors, then realized she needed a whole other post. We really miss these guys, don't we? The Siren stresses once more that this was a post about comic character actors, so some true greats (like Thelma Ritter, whose finest performance in Pickup on South Street was serious indeed, and ditto Thomas Mitchell, at his best in The Long Voyage Home) were left out on technicalities. Still, the Siren's patient readers are forcing her to apologize to the ghosts of the following:

Mary Boland. L'amour, l'amour ... The Siren let poor Mary down, so she is picking her up again, dearie.

Eugene Pallette. As Moviezzz puts it, "From his work in the Philo Vance films, the Deanna Durbin films, to Friar Tuck, and Mr. Smith as well as My Man Godfrey, he is one actor that I will see anything he does. That voice alone. And, in something like First Love, he can even play against type." The Siren remembers Pallette's deathless performance in My Man Godfrey, as the head of the Bullock clan, and deeply regrets not including him. He's superb in that movie, buttressing his fragile sanity by firing off joke after joke at his batty family's expense: "All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people."

Mary Wickes. DeeLuzon was too right about her, this was a face one was always happy to see.

Mischa Auer. You're right, X. Trapnel--all it took was recollecting Carlo's monkey imitation to make the Siren regret Auer's absence.

William Demarest. The brain switch was in the "off" position when the Siren omitted him from the post. He should have made it just for the way he delivers Preston Sturges' musings on the lifelong bond between a pater familias and his female offspring: "Either they leave their husbands and come back with four children and move into your guest room, or their husband loses his job and the whole kaboodle comes back. Or else they're so homely you can't get rid of them at all and they hang around the house like Spanish moss and shame you into an early grave." Shamus, Ivan, anyone else -- there he is now, where he belongs.

Franklin Pangborn. The ultimate "sissy" as discussed by Vito Russo, but Pangborn always gave his roles great interior dignity. Whether fitting a dress, running a cruise ship, overwhelmed by a treasure hunt or organizing a welcoming committee for an ersatz hero, Pangborn played the dilemma the way his character saw it--as a problem of great societal import.

Blanket apologies to the shades of the following: James Gleason, Charlie Lane, Charlie Ruggles, Robert Dudley, Charles Coburn, Alan Hale, Billy Gilbert, Melville Cooper, Sig Ruman, Roland Young.

GayasXmas makes an excellent point, that the best character acting is now to be found on television. Which also segues to Alex's excellent question--WHY did character actors disappear from the movies? certainly the talent is still out there. Alex pins it on plot construction. The Siren agrees, but adds that more than ever, plots are woven around the marquee-name stars, and larded with special effects that, in addition to administering the requisite number of jolts, also are built to get the laughs that used to belong to the character players. The Siren repeats something she mentioned when discussing Mildred Natwick (oops, we ALL forgot Mildred, didn't we? for shame!):


Nowadays the studios pay $20 million or whatever for Jim Carrey, and once they pay that you are by God going to get Jim Carrey in every frame, I don't care if it's a childbirth scene in a women's prison, we'll get Carrey in there somewhere. Star vehicles have no room for a superb character actress like Natwick, mud-fence homely but perfect in every role.


The Siren winds up by saying that it's no coincidence that the Coen brothers, with their reverence for the likes of Preston Sturges and encyclopedic knowledge of film history, are among the small group of filmmakers who still recognize that a character turn can help lift a movie into immortality. Any other filmmakers still doing that?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Comedy in Character

One of the reasons that the movies of today aren't as much fun as those made in the first two decades of Talkies is because they jettisoned their great army of supporting players. At one time when people reminisced about movies, they were more likely to be talking about Eve Arden than Doris Day or Jane Wyman, whose friends she played on some funny occasions. Her first appearance always caused an appreciative buzz, and her slightest glance was treasured more than all the star's vapourings...She could make almost any line funny, though her forte was the sort of lines that went with the look-elegant bitchery or advice she knows the heroine is too stupid to accept.


That, in one of the most dead-accurate paragraphs he has ever written, is how David Shipman summarizes the delicious Eve Arden in The Great Movie Stars: The International Years--but he could be writing the epitaph for all of the era's great comic character actors. It was a golden age for comic relief and it is, alas, as dead as the dodo. For the Newcritics Comedy Blogathon Blowout, the Siren herewith offers some brief takes on the characters she loves. And she loves them with a passion.

We'll start with Eve Arden. Is she not everyone's favorite thing in Mildred Pierce, whether she's taking Jack Carson down a peg ("Leave something on me, I might catch cold") or trying to give Joan Crawford a clue about daughter Veda's real nature ("Alligators have the right idea. They eat their young")? Eve made a decades-long career out of being the smartest gal in the room, whether backstage as a Ziegfeld Girl, in a rooming house trying to get in the Stage Door, or working for a fashion editor in Cover Girl. In a melodrama she'd give you a whimsical moment between hankies, as in My Reputation; in a piece of unalloyed kitsch like Song of Scheherezade she'd be the only one who seemed to realize the train had left Reality Station, so you might as well live it up.

The Siren has a one-year-old who apparently harbors dreams of moving to Australia, since that is the time zone he has decided to synchronize with. Despite having become an unwilling participant in an endless day-for-night shoot the Siren stayed up to midnight on Wednesday night to watch The Hard Way from 1943. Did she watch it for Ida Lupino, director Vincent Sherman or even the towering genius of cameraman James Wong Howe? No way. She watched it for Jack Carson. He was born in Manitoba (of all places) but his persona was wise-guy American, complete with a voice so nasal it seemed to originate at the bottom of his sinuses. Probably the best acting he ever did (and he was always good) was in A Star Is Born, in the deeply unfunny role of the heartless agent. He played a lot of light comedies too, often with Dennis Morgan. But Carson's strong suit was comic relief, often mixed with a dash of the heavy, as in Mildred Pierce ("Oh, I'm happy. Believe me, inside my heart is singing") or more than a dash, as in The Strawberry Blonde. He could hold his own with Errol Flynn in Gentleman Jim and underplay in scenes with a frenetically mugging Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace.

No tribute to comic character actors could be complete without mention of the great Margaret Dumont. She was, without question, The Greatest Straight Woman of All Time. Marx authorities ranging from Dick Cavett to Groucho himself all say Dumont didn't get the jokes, on or off screen, but the Siren doesn't buy it. Dumont had a long career as a comic foil, and face it, she is too good not to know what she's doing. To be a good straight (wo)man, it isn't enough to keep a poker face and ignore the lunacy. Kitty Carlisle, Lillian Roth and Kay Francis all do that, and they still get flattened. No, Dumont had something extra--the ability to broaden her characterization with each new joke. Her finest moments probably came in Duck Soup, where her manner is so impeccably grand she seems to have wandered in from some Ruritanian operetta filming on another soundstage. Groucho was one of the funniest men American comedy ever produced--and if you want to say THE funniest the Siren won't argue. But it takes nothing away from Groucho to state that he was never funnier than when he was bouncing joke after joke off Dumont's imposing figure.

Andrew Sarris used to tell a story about a party where he encountered a fellow who edited films for television. Seems the editor was eager to tell Sarris about how he improved the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films by "cutting out all those boring dance numbers." This horrifying tale from the days before Turner Classic Movies came to rescue us doesn't mean that we should neglect three non-dancing stalwarts from the Astaire-Rogers movies, Eric Blore, Erik Rhodes and Edward Everett Horton. (All three were discussed with great verve in Vito Russo's landmark The Celluloid Closet.) Blore was in five of nine Astaire-Rogers musicals, usually playing an English butler, frequently one dim in wit and dubious in ethics. But Blore's best role was undoubtedly as Sir Alfred "Pearlie" McGlennan-Keith R. F. D., con-man confidant of Barbara Stanwyck and Charles Coburn, in The Lady Eve: "Into the gulf that separated the unfortunate couple, there was a coachman on the estate, a gay dog, a great hand with the horses and the ladies, need I say more?" Rhodes appeared in Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee, offering proof to homegrown audiences that there was something a little swishy about these Continental types: "Your wife is safe with Tonetti! He prefers spaghetti!" Horton usually played wholly inadequate husbands of some sort, using his carefully honed double-take, one of the best in the business, to convey utter shock at being suspected of some sort of caddery, as in Top Hat. Of the three, Horton had the most extensive career. The Siren's favorite Horton role is his turn as the impossibly dull husband of Miriam Hopkins in Design for Living.

Billie Burke played the dithery matron to perfection in many comedies of the 1930s. Burke, who had been a great beauty in the days when she was married to Florenz Ziegfeld, had an impeccably upper-crust accent and a voice like a piccolo with the hiccups. The adjective that clings to Burke is "fluttery"--yet, if you watch closely, you'll see that there is an economy to her movement. She conveys fluttering without flapping. And nobody did the wan, put-upon, strictly-social smile like Billie Burke--watch her turn it on Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery in Dinner at Eight. Her signature role, Glinda the Good Witch, is a good deal mushier than Burke's usual outings. Her characters were frequently atrociously selfish, as with her aspic-obsessed party-giver in Dinner at Eight and blithe con artist in The Young in Heart, but they were usually capable of being nudged into better behavior by the last reel.

S.Z. Sakall found refuge from Hitler's Europe in roles as a bemused, bewitched and bewildered mensch, often behind a bar or a front desk, as in Casablanca and Seven Sweethearts. The Siren loves the way Sakall swallows his lines--half the time you have no idea what he's saying--and lets his rubbery jowls do much of his acting for him.

Ralph Bellamy and Gail Patrick may seem out of place in this roundup, as they were both strikingly good-looking and often played second leads of some sort. But they almost never got the hero or heroine, and both of them were at their best in comedies. In My Man Godfrey, Patrick almost walks away with the picture as she raises one bitchy eyebrow at all of Carole Lombard's lovelorn antics. And in My Favorite Wife, she sets up some of Cary Grant's best lines, then gets to punch Grant in the face--and the audience knows he deserves it. Ralph Bellamy reaches his nebbishy apotheosis in His Girl Friday, even to the indignity of having his character described to a T as a Ralphy Bellamy type. He is one of that beloved movie's least-sung glories, but god is he funny, the picture of reasonable benevolence as he intones, "Hildy, we could take the six o'clock train if it will save a man's life!"

Finally, the Siren mulled long and hard over whether to include Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in this list, finally deciding that no, they really don't belong, as marvelously and subversively witty as they are. Greenstreet and Lorre are usually playing villains, not comic relief...and great villains would be another blogathon altogether.

The floor is open. Go ahead, argue with the Siren. Knock her over the head with a rubber chicken and demand to know how she could forget your favorite character actor. Frank Morgan? Eugene Palette? Marjorie Main? Anyone? And if you think there is someone from our own less-funny era who deserves a place at the table, share that name too.

(This post is part of the Newcritics Comedy Blogathon, going on until tomorrow, Nov. 11. Stop by Newcritics for more musings.)

Friday, November 09, 2007

Meanwhile...


...the Siren would like to share a handful of great posts.

Raymond de Felitta, a screenwriter and director who writes much faster than the Siren does, has a loving tribute to Rita Hayworth going on at his place. He warmed up with a couple of posts on Cover Girl, which the Siren also loves for its Technicolor gorgeousness and endless, daffy title number. Then he went into high Hayworth gear, with two fine posts that examine the sexy and sinister allure of Gilda, as well as what keeps it from being a great noir. All this tied up with a compassionate and loving assessment of Rita, including a personal reminiscence from late in her life that had the Siren misting up. Please, read it all. Then go back and read Raymond on Judy Garland. He's on a tear.

The Siren is wondering if she and Filmbrain were in the same audience for Diva in 1982, waiting to meet up in the blogosphere 25 years later. Talk about a blast from the past. Back in the 1980s Siren loved the movie as much as Filmbrain did. Does this mean she should give The Moon in the Gutter another chance?


Vertigo's Psyche at And Your Little Blog Too has his own tribute to the fabulous Joan Fontaine up.


Bob Westal of Forward to Yesterday kicks off his Bob Fosse Blogathon tomorrow (god, the Siren loves this picture of Bob). With typical elan Bob tackles a ticklish number right off the bat.

Stinky Lulu, currently adorning her place with an exquisite moment of Jane Darwell, is announcing The Second Annual Supporting Actress Blogathon for Sunday January 8.

Ivan at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear has two excellent posts up about a couple of silent movies: Beggars of Life, starring the Siren's favorite Hollywood memoirist, Louise Brooks, and Mantrap, starring fabulous, ill-fated Clara Bow.

The Shamus asks if Flickhead's Bunuel Blogathon is over. The Siren thinks yes (and she never did finish her post, having been scooped by Michael Guillen's excellent observations on My Last Sigh). Anyway, the Shamus caught up with Viridiana and while he says "it didn't set off bombs in my psyche like it did for the Siren" (quelle image!), the movie definitely grabbed him by the lapels.

Speaking of Flickhead, the Siren loved his Halloween post.

Last, and oddest, is an entry from the ever-splendid Allure. The Siren really hopes her beauty-blogging pals in the sidebar check this one out--it's a nice long series of illustrated black-and-white ads for the beauty contraptions of yesteryear. Maybe Operator_99 should have posted this one for Halloween, as the grim devices combined with the frozen ingenue simpers of the models give an effect the great horror directors would have appreciated. Several of the nose-correcting contraptions would have fit perfectly into Eyes Without a Face.

Postscript: Alex of Motion Picture, It's Called has pointed out that a funny thing happened to the Siren's sidebar. Translation to the new layout made the thing eat some link coding. The Siren has been cleaning it up, but if your link is missing still, do let her know.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Siren "Has Been Spared the Sensational and Commercial Publicity..."


Many, many thanks to the Siren's patient readers, and all those who voted in the Weblog Awards 2007. Congratulations to the winner, The Cool Hunter, a beautiful eyeful of a blog. The Siren is most happy with her fourth-place finish, considering her usual daily traffic could fit into a Manhattan studio with enough room left over for George Peppard and an orange tabby.

Extra thanks go to James Wolcott, Lance(lot) Mannion, Jon Swift , Diary of a Heretic , Ivan G. Shreve of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear , Dan Leo, Annieytown of Blogdorf Goodman and Operator_99 of Allure. Jon and Kathleen of Diary of a Heretic also placed high in their categories; as Jon so rightly puts it, "I don't think of us as losers; I think of us as victory challenged." Thanks also to the Jay, for being a swell blogger and one hell of a good sport. The Siren is blogrolling him and plans to stop by his place more often. The Rambo post alone would guarantee that.

The Siren will be interrupting her Joan Fontaine hobbyhorse to post in the comedy blogathon currently whooping it up over at Newcritics. Stay tuned, and thanks again.

Above--the Siren wanted a picture of Margo sitting stoic and glamourous through the Sarah Siddons awards, but oh well.

(updated)

Monday, November 05, 2007

Fontaine Flowers: Rebecca and Suspicion

When Alfred Hitchcock called Rebecca "a woman's picture" he was cutting it down, but in fact that's what it is — and a superb one at that. Hitchcock had a dismissive attitude toward the label, and he is seldom discussed as a woman's director in any sense of the term. But women have a love for Hitchcock that they often don't feel for other suspense directors. His movies do an uncanny job of tapping into the darkest, toughest and most common female insecurities, something that has helped keep them alive over all these years.

The films almost always show, whether front-and-center or in the background, the primal fears that woman have regarding the love of men. A man's love is always conditional in Hitchcock, never a sure thing, and more often than not it is a dreadful hard slog for a woman to get any affection from a man at all. A woman looks at a Hitchcock movie and sees the heroine confronting the same questions that may torment her. Does my sexual history make me unlovable? (Notorious, The Birds, North by Northwest). Is he just biding time with me, or will he make a commitment? (Rear Window). Is he crazy? am I crazy for loving him? (Spellbound).

The two movies that Hitchcock made with Joan Fontaine go very deeply indeed into these questions. In Rebecca, the woman wonders, does he really long for his previous lover? (Which is the same question asked in Vertigo, to be answered in one of the darkest endings Hitchcock ever filmed.) And in Suspicion, the question becomes the worst one a lovelorn woman can ask — did he ever really care for me at all?

Rebecca was the high mark to that point in a series of roles that had Fontaine playing delicate maidens hungry for love. The first such character (and least appealing one, though Joan is believable) was Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s fiancee in Gunga Din, she who almost spoils the fun by tying the man down. The second was the "sheep," Peggy Day, in The Women.

Here you can see Joan, under George Cukor's tutelage, beginning to absorb some real principles of acting. When she asked the director about gestures and tone of voice, he said, "Forget all that. Think and feel and the rest will take care of itself." In her memoirs Fontaine called that "the best and shortest drama lesson" she ever got. In The Women Fontaine's self-consciousness is almost gone and her concept of Peggy is whole. What she hasn't quite mastered is her interaction with the other actresses. Her playing is all outside, she doesn't take what is said to her and weave it into her subsequent lines. She is a straight woman, doing a swell job of setting up other people's jokes, but not yet able to free her reactions as well. Here is one such joke set-up, which the Siren is reasonably certain will not make it into the remake filming now. With big-eyed horror, Peggy exclaims, "He beats you. Lucy, how terrible." And Lucy, played by Marjorie Main, comes back with, "Ain't it. When you think of the lot of women on this ranch who need a beatin' more than I do." Fontaine registers this outrageous (even in 1939) remark with the same damp-eyed amazement she does most other dialogue.

The Women shows promise, but Rebecca is an astonishing leap forward. Hitchcock worked carefully with Fontaine and she says she liked him, though in retrospect she realized he was manipulating her, telling her that he was the only one who believed she could give a good performance, reinforcing her insecurity at every turn. It wasn't hard. Laurence Olivier made it clear he had wanted his wife, Vivien Leigh, in the part of "I," despite the fact that Leigh's screen test for it was terrible, drawing hoots from George Cukor when it was shown to him by producer David O. Selznick. (Olivier treated Merle Oberon the same way, and for the same reason, on the set of Wuthering Heights.) Fontaine, already nervous and well aware this was a make-or-break role, had to contend with Olivier's idea of banter--informed she had just married Brian Aherne, he sniffed, "Couldn't you do any better than that?" At other times when her costar blew takes he would let fly with words that Fontaine later primly said she had seen only on bathroom walls. Thirty or forty years later she still had little good to say about Olivier and, as this personal reminiscence shows, remembered filming as a nightmare. She said even the other British actors, save Reginald Denny, were cliquish to the point of cruelty, refusing to budge from their afternoon tea in Judith Anderson's dressing room when Hitchcock threw Fontaine an on-set birthday party. And Fontaine doesn't even mention the exterior shots that caused cast and crew to be hospitalized for poison ivy. She couldn't work for three days.

Some actors grow to hate their signature role due to its having typed them, but in Fontaine's case it's easy to see why she retained little personal affection for Rebecca. Still, she shone, and to this day she knows it (check out her answer here to the question of which film of hers is most remembered). The second Mrs. de Winter is often described as weak, docile, terrorized, an example of extreme passivity. But while that is certainly a large part of Fontaine's characterization, it is not all of it, and indeed could not be or the character would probably annoy us all to death. It's the flashes of spirit that Fontaine shows that give you a stake in her heroine.

The first moment you see her, she is stepping up to stop Maxim as he stands on the edge of a cliff and contemplates suicide. She steps back immediately, cowed and uncertain, when he turns around, but then again he is glaring at her as though he might like to throw her over. The Siren would step back too.

Later you get one of the Siren's favorite moments in the movie, when Fontaine defies the dreadful Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates, sheer unbridled delight) and declares she is going to marry Maxim. The Siren loves to watch Fontaine's face in this scene, eyes widening as though she can barely believe her own daring. She's able to muster the nerve, it seems, because Maxim is there with her. Afterward, though, she is unable to stop Mrs. Van Hopper from venomously suggesting that she is a marriage of convenience for her husband and a poor substitute for Rebecca. Later scenes with George Sanders, who was at his very best playing the heel who was Rebecca's lover, have Fontaine's face registering extreme discomfort in the presence of a cad, as well as knowledge that she can't just bounce this well-bred scoundrel out on his ear, even if he did come in through the window.

Later, there is the scene where Mrs. Danvers, played to the hilt by Judith Anderson, shows the bride her predecessor's room. Danvers lingers over a transparent negligee in a manner so lewd it makes the audience blush as well as Mrs. de Winter recoil. (This, one of classic Hollywood's most overt suggestions of lesbianism, stayed in, but the du Maurier ending had to be altered.) Here, all by herself, Fontaine finally gathers up her courage and orders Mrs. Danvers to destroy Rebecca's papers and other items. "I am Mrs. de Winter now," says Fontaine. Her attire, her posture, even her tone of voice suggest a schoolgirl at last defying a harsh headmistress. It's the moment you've been waiting for--some spine!--and it also means that later in the movie, when the tables turn and Fontaine becomes the loving support for a shattered Maxim, the shift isn't so abrupt that the audience can't accept it.

David Thomson has called Rebecca "a disguised horror film," and it comes closest to that description in the movie's most famous scene, where a browbeaten and despondent Fontaine comes close to committing suicide, egged on by the diabolical Mrs. Danvers. Once seen, you remember this moment forever, but the Siren relishes this famous scene more for Judith Anderson than for Fontaine. Fontaine, mind you, plays it perfectly. The conceit is that the second Mrs. de Winter has been driven to the brink of madness. But the young woman, however easily cowed and pathetically eager to please she may be, has seemed up to this point to be eminently sane. Danvers' suicidal coaxing plays as an evil witch casting a spell, not just as a malevolent handmaiden capitalizing on Fontaine's moment of madness. Fontaine's face suggests that she has been hypnotized, more than anything, and it's the sound of noises and flares from the beach that snaps her out of it.

Rebecca had the same effect on Fontaine's acting, in that at last she had the impetus to start REacting; indeed, given the part she was playing, if she could not react well the whole movie tumbles around her ears. In Suspicion, her next movie with Hitchcock and the one that won her the Oscar, the task is somewhat different. She must show us everything but the title quality. That emotion she must fight at every turn, because Lina Aysgarth is desperately trying to allay her own suspicions every time her husband, Johnny, piles up another whopper. Watch Fontaine here, at the end, waiting for the entirely-too-pretty maid to exit.

Donald Spoto, in his biography of Hitchcock, says that contrary to popular belief and the director's own later myth-making, the director had always conceived Suspicion as a "film about a woman's fantasy life" and didn't intend to follow the novel, in which Joan Fontaine's character intentionally drinks the glass of milk her murderous husband has poisoned. Spoto says Hitchcock even told RKO executive producer Harry E. Edington that he would resolve any objections to having a romantic lead turn murderer by "making the husband's deeds the fictions in the mind of a neurotically suspicious woman."

But, the Siren insists, Lina is not all that neurotic. Molly Haskell called Fontaine's character "masochism incarnate," and she has a point in that Fontaine shows us, as clearly as the Production Code would allow, the sexual hold that Grant's Johnny has on her. But while critics usually describe Johnny's actions as mere bad gambling habits, the fact is that he's a criminal embezzler, a chronic liar, shirker and cheat, all of which are flaws that the Siren feels justify a little suspicion from a woman without her being called neurotic or masochistic.

It is the buildup of tension that creates Fontaine's mental state, not the other way around. Fontaine must suppress every question that comes to mind, at first for fear of causing strife with her husband, later because she doesn't want to seem a snob — she is upper class British, Johnny is not. In the scene above, Lina's struggle to keep from bursting out with any sort of anger or even reproach seems almost physical, as Fontaine checks herself a couple of times in mid-move toward Johnny.

Finally, having choked down every legitimate question that Grant's wildly improper behavior is raising in her, Lina really does begin to succumb to neurosis, taking small actions and turning them into murderous portents.

So the "falseness" of the ending is not so much that Grant isn't a murderer after all, which was part of the design from the beginning. It's that suddenly we are supposed to look at Lina as foolish and somehow faithless, not supporting her husband the way she should have, when her husband is a pretty obvious shit, Cary Grant or no Cary Grant.

Fontaine didn't work with Hitchcock again, but her character, as a tightly repressed young gentlewoman, had been firmly fixed by her association with him. She would spend some time trying to break free of that mold, until she took the same character and altered it for all time in Letter from an Unknown Woman.


Friday, November 02, 2007

The Siren Is a Finalist for the 2007 Weblog Awards

The Siren is still around, O Patient Readers, and finishing up her Rebecca/Suspicion piece. Meanwhile The Shamus has brought her glad tidings.

The 2007 Weblog Awards

The Siren is a finalist for the 2007 Weblog Awards, as Best Culture Blog. She thinks most thanks are due to her stalwart commenters, who keep the place high-toned--as Nora said to Nick, "I love you because you know such lovely people."

If you get a chance, you can follow the link and vote for the Siren here, once every 24 hours until November 8. The Siren, of course, will maintain her serene dignity and unsmudged mascara no matter the outcome ...



... even if Libertas wins.

Many thanks to Jon Swift, that sterling example of reasonable conservatism, who took time off from O'Reilly-watching to reach across the aisle and nominate the Siren. Oddly enough, he has been nominated as "Funniest Blog." While the Siren thinks of Mr. Swift as a veritable tower of seriousness, indeed the Margaret Dumont of the blogosphere, he makes a persuasive argument that voting him the award will "send an important message that there are some prizes that [Al] Gore does not have a lock on, besides the Presidency, of course." Please vote for Jon as well.

See you, and the lovely Joan Fontaine, very soon.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

More Joan: Memoirs, Early Days and an Early Film

If there is one standard acting-analytical vacuity that the Siren would like to see permanently retired, it is the old "well, she always played herself." Read even a modest number of Hollywood books and you will discover that the actor who actually played anything close to his/her actual personality was rare indeed. (Carole Lombard comes to mind, but of course her earthy Anglo-Saxon vocabulary could not be reproduced on screen.) Archetypal tough guy Humphrey Bogart came from a well-heeled Manhattan background. Bette Davis often played self-sacrificing heroines and Davis was anything but that. Henry Fonda played warm, compassionate roles and we have the testimony of his children that in life he was quite closed-off and difficult to know. The Siren could go on with this parlor game for quite some time, but let's bring it round to Joan Fontaine; she wasn't much like the timid second wife in Rebecca or the terrified bride in Suspicion.

Read Fontaine's autobiography, No Bed of Roses, and what you get comes close to something said by her sister, who said "Joan is very bright and sharp and can be cutting." The woman who published the book in 1978 seems witty, confident, possessed of a wide range of interests and, perhaps, not nearly as fascinated by her Hollywood past or even by acting as she once was. It must be admitted that this isn't the best star memoir the Siren has read, nor is it even one of the best. There is something rather perfunctory about it, a sense of oh-gosh-I-guess-they-want-to-hear-about-this-now. Social life is covered in more detail than most of the movies, although this may have little to do with Fontaine. Like most star memoirs it was ghost-written and it's axiomatic in the publishing industry that people want gossip from Hollywood books, not moviemaking analysis. The Siren has to believe that Fontaine would have preferred to write more about Letter from an Unknown Woman (which gets one--one!--brief graph) and less about her ghastly stepfather and his pawings or about her celebrated feud with her sister.

About that feud--the Siren wrote once before about the difficulty of peering into family matters, and she reiterates that here. The Siren, who has enormous admiration for Olivia de Havilland as well as her sister, does not presume to understand what seems to be quite genuine bad blood between the two. One explanation Joan offers in her book is strikingly simple, however. They got along badly because they were raised to do so. The Siren spends a good part of her day trying to patch up sibling rivalry; Joan and Olivia's mother, a frustrated actress herself, spent her days fanning it. She raised the two in perpetual competition with one another, and the habit stuck. No matter what is behind the rift, it's a shame to think that these two women, with so few people alive who remember the years and the people they do, are still cool toward one another. The Siren has this bright little fantasy that they actually call each other regularly and keep the "feud" alive in the press for the sake of appearances--it's part of their legend, after all, darlings.



Anway, the book has plenty of examples of Joan's lively sense of humor. One instance got her in considerable hot water avec Olivia, when a reporter called to ask Joan's opinion of Olivia's new husband Marcus Goodrich. Joan replied, "All I know about him is that he has had four wives and has written one book. Too bad it isn't the other way around." The Siren found this quite funny. Olivia, predictably, did not. Here's Joan's summary of filming A Damsel in Distress: "I tripped over fences and stepping stones to the tune of 'Things Are Looking Up.' George and Ira Gershwin also wrote the haunting 'Foggy Day in London Town' for our film. I also fell on my face."

She fell in love with George Stevens during the filming of Gunga Din, but nothing came of it, nor did she learn much about acting from him. Speaking of multiple-take directors--Fontaine says Stevens' basic direction was "I don't know what's wrong. Let's shoot it again." Stevens would sometimes halt filming cold to go off and pace or stare into the middle distance. Joan reports that "it was Carole Lombard who solved the mystery of George's brown studies. 'You know what that s.o.b. is thinking about when he's in one of his trances? NOT A FUCKING THING.'"

Reportedly Joan's first husband, Brian Aherne, quipped that the book should have been called "No Shred of Truth." But the ex-husbands and lovers don't come off all that horribly, though none of them emerge with much credit either. Take Conrad Nagel, for example. Surely no man wants to think that when he is dead and buried, a woman whom he deflowered will contribute to keeping his memory alive by saying the whole thing reminded her "of when I had to stand up in class as a child and be vaccinated."
Aherne, for his part, went off to knock back a few with director Jean Negulesco the night before he was to marry Joan, then had Jean call for him to say he was too afraid to go through with the marriage. Joan told Jean that she'd be at the church the next day and wasn't about to call off anything, no matter what Brian did subsequently. Brian showed the next day, they got married and apparently this didn't come up later on in their marriage. The Siren isn't sure whether it's this part of the book that upset Aherne, or the part where he spent much of their wedding night dancing around their hotel room in his dressing gown. The Siren suspects most men outside of a professional corps de ballet do not want the word "pirouetting" to show up anywhere near a description of them, not to mention the word "tassels."

Irrelevant though this next bit is, Siren can't abandon this phase of Joan's life without a favorite anecdote, told by Joan and quoted in Boze Hadleigh's Hollywood and Whine:
[During] a trip under the aegis of a British War Relief campaign [in World War II] we were at the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City. It happened to be the anniversary of a college sorority and all the girls celebrated by coming to meet the handsome actor. Microphones were thrust in front of us. Brian [Aherne] was to deliver a message to the RAF pilots who would be listening to a shortwave rebroadcast. Did have to anything in particular to say to these brave airmen?

Brian said yes indeed, he did. 'Chaps, keep your peckers up!' Silence...the girls fled in embarrassment. The president minister blanched. Only when I got my English husband back to our hotel did I inform him that in America 'pecker' did not mean 'chin.'


Yesterday on the TCM Birthday tribute the Siren caught one early Joan movie, Blond Cheat. In her autobiography Joan showed her opinion of this one pretty clearly by failing to mention its existence. The Siren can't say she disagrees. Joan is exquisitely pretty in the movie--more slender than other stars of the day, perfect bone structure, skin so dewy it seems to come with its own inner key light. Unfortunately this is part of the problem. One characteristic of an inexperienced but beautiful actress is that she will often play to her loveliness. By that, the Siren means that every move will show the young lady is excruciatingly conscious of how she looks. (Amy Irving was frequently guilty of this early in her career, and Scarlett Johansson still is.) You can see that she feels the lipstick on her lips, the mascara on the lashes. She knows how beautiful she is, but she doesn't own that beauty yet. She is trying it on in front of the camera--pirouetting, if you will. Every aspect of the character becomes subordinate to this physical effect. On top of this, Joan is saddled with one of those lead-balloon imitation screwball scripts--where the leading man declares "whatever it is, I'm not going to fall for it," and then falls on his face.



The most fascinating part of this movie was the date on it--1938. One year removed from respectable performances in Gunga Din and The Women, and just two years from Rebecca, one of the best performances Joan ever gave. Olivia was right, Joan was bright and sharp indeed.

Postscript: Do check out this birthday post for Joan at JJ's place, As Little as Possible. It includes a fab clip of Joan, wearing Pucci or something close, and stumping the panel on What's My Line.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Happy Birthday to Joan Fontaine

Today, Oct. 22, Joan Fontaine turns 90 years old. And this week the Siren intends to do her doggonedest to post as much as possible, and devote each post to Joan. There are precious few stars from the glory days of Hollywood who are still with us, and none are dearer to the Siren than Ms Fontaine. Can you guess why?

She was a delicate clinging vine in Gunga Din, one of the greatest of all 1930s action films. She was a teary-eyed, but still sympathetic "sheep" in The Women. She was Fred Astaire's first post-Ginger partner, in A Damsel in Distress. She was Hitchcock's first Hollywood blonde as the terrorized, given-name-less second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca, the role Ms Fontaine believes most likely to keep her name alive with the public. She won an Oscar with her second film for Hitchcock, Suspicion, beating a roster that included her own sister, Olivia de Havilland. She was nominated for another Oscar for The Constant Nymph. She was the title heroine in Jane Eyre, opposite Orson Welles in one of his few outings as a romantic lead.

Any of this would merit a good long post from any classic movie lover, but for the Siren one reason towers above all. Joan Fontaine didn't merely give her finest performance in Letter from an Unknown Woman, which the Siren firmly believes is the greatest woman's picture of all time. Ms Fontaine also selected the Stefan Zweig story, developed the project with her then-husband William Dozier and was instrumental in hiring the great Max Ophuls to direct.

It just doesn't get much more impressive than that. If there were any justice in the world, they'd be altering the lights on the Empire State Building today for Ms Fontaine. As it is, maybe she is catching up with some of her lesser-known films on Turner Classic Movies today. As of now, the Siren plans to spend the week going through Ms Fontaine's career more or less chronologically, winding up with some thoughts on Letter. If you have the time or can get to your Tivo, do try to catch some of TCM's offerings. The Siren saw Until They Sail a while back, and though Ms Fontaine is hard on it in her memoirs, she is pretty good in it. Unfortunately the Siren won't be able to see Born to Be Bad, but Nicholas Ray directed it and if anyone catches it please let us know what you think. Also, if anyone else posts birthday tributes, drop the Siren a line via email or comments and she will link it up.

The Siren treasures her one tiny personal connection to Ms Fontaine. According to IMDB, she now lives in Carmel, California, but in the early 1990s she still maintained at least a part-time residence in New York City. In those days the Siren's roommate, Bill, managed a chic, high-end costume jewelry boutique on the Upper East Side. This store specialized in pieces that echoed real jewels sold in the legendary stores a few blocks away on Fifth Avenue. The ladies who shopped there were the sort who could throw on a little cubic zirconia and have everyone assume it was the real deal--with none of the insurance risk from taking the genuine sparklers out of the vault. Bill waited on a number of breathtakingly famous women, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Imelda Marcos. (Imelda didn't actually speak to him, communicating instead through her companion, a Mrs. Batista--prompting the Siren to wonder forever afterward if New York is home to some sort of Ex-Dictators' Wives Club.)

Anyway, Bill's favorite client was Joan Fontaine. She came in several times a year, still beautiful, always dressed in perfect taste, always warm and courteous and always picking out his favorite pieces. The Siren yearned to dash uptown from her office job and catch a glimpse of Joan, but alas, the rent had to be paid, and the Siren's boss at the time had this dreary insistence on one's bodily presence throughout the working day. (And he never went to the movies. Boy, was the Siren glad when that gig ended.) Every time Bill came home and mentioned Ms Fontaine had been in the store the Siren almost chewed her arm off with jealousy. Finally she made him promise that the next time the lady dropped by, he would at least mention his worshipful roommate.

So some time later, in comes Joan, glamourous as ever. Bill waited until he was almost done wrapping her purchases, then finally remarked, "You know, Miss Fontaine, my roommate is a big admirer of yours." A polite murmur of "how nice" or something from Ms Fontaine. He ventured further. "And she asked me to tell you that her favorite movie of yours is Letter from an Unknown Woman."

At that, Bill said Ms Fontaine lifted her head and gave him the most dazzling smile he had ever seen from her.

"Is it really?" she said. "Mine too."

Just Concentrate on the Beard


The Siren had sworn off this sport for a while, but some things are too good to pass up and besides, Lance started it. TCM is showing The Life of Emile Zola tonight.

MS Encarta on Zola: "He had come to be known as a champion of the innocent, an upholder of justice, and a defender of the downtrodden. As novelist Anatole France declared in his eulogy, Zola had become 'the conscience of mankind.'"

Libertas says: "Whatever you may think of Zola’s politics, don’t let it diminish your enjoyment of Muni’s masterful performance in a perfectly realized film."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

In Memoriam: Deborah Kerr, 1921--2007





She was living in London at the English Speaking Union in Charles Street, Mayfair. It was a fine morning and she walked over to see me in Chester Square. She was bare-headed, and I remember her hair shining in the sun like burnished copper...We looked at the bulky script [for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp] together and I watched the subtle transformations that passed over her face as I made suggestions about the script. Again I felt that mysterious affinity, as between an artist and his model, which is one of the most inexplicable of the sensual sensations...

We all depended upon one another, we all learnt from one another. I was not the only director. There were four directors. I learnt from Anton what an artist is. I learnt from Roger what a man is. I learnt from Deborah what love is.
--Michael Powell, A Life in Movies


Deborah Kerr died Tuesday, and Michael Powell has been dead for many years. They fell in love while making Colonel Blimp. Soon after Kerr took up a contract with MGM, and Powell told her if she went to Hollywood it would be without him. He married someone else, and eventually she married too. "The camera always seems to find an innate gentility in me," Kerr laughed. But in Colonel Blimp, and a few years later in Black Narcissus, Michael Powell's camera found love and longing in that beautiful face, as he did in life.

The most romantic story the Siren knows concerns Powell and Kerr. They separated, but he never forgot. They shared a birthday, September 30. Each year on that date, right up to the year before his death, he sent her a bouquet of flowers with the simplest of notes: "Happy Birthday, Darling."

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On the Manliness of Montgomery Clift




This post is part of the Montgomery Clift Blogathon, organized by Nathaniel R who writes the fine film blog The Film Experience. On this, what would have been Clift's 87th birthday, please follow the link to Nathaniel's place and read the other entries inspired by this great actor.




The true originator of the rebellious twentieth-century antihero was Montgomery Clift...not Marlon Brando or James Dean...the restrained performer with the inner tension and those ancient, melancholy eyes...his presence so unobtrusively strong that it lingered even when he was off-camera.
--Marcello Mastroianni, quoted in Movie Talk




Mastroianni perfectly summarizes the Siren's feelings about Montgomery Clift. He was a supremely talented and dedicated actor. Like many others in the American film pantheon, the sad, sordid facts of his alcoholism and unhappy life tend to dominate discussions of him, but in Clift's case there is another twist: He was gay, primarily attracted to men despite strong and lasting attachments to women such as Elizabeth Taylor and Libby Holman. Even in our more enlightened times, that colors discussion of Clift in ways that usually work to his detriment. The Siren would like to see that change.

Even before Clift's personal life was widely publicized or discussed there was a certain tone to colleagues' talk of him. He was fragile, "the most sensitive man I ever knew. If somebody kicked a dog a mile away he'd feel it," said Edward Dmytryk, director of the ill-fated Raintree County. "My arm still aches from trying to teach Montgomery Clift to throw a punch," said Howard Hawks, thirty years after making Red River. "He's a little queer, isn't he?" said John Wayne to his secretary after meeting Clift. Wayne's macho clique on the set of Red River included Web Overlander, who showed why he was the makeup man and not in casting when he snorted, "Clift couldn't take a piss by himself. Hawks must be an idiot if he thinks that s.o.b. can act." You still can go into corners of the Internet and find people describing Clift as effete or androgynous, such as this introduction to From Here to Eternity that quotes a biographer to the effect that Clift "punched like a girl." This sort of thing never fails to draw a double take from the Siren. From the second she first saw Clift in Red River, he was all man to her.

It comes down, of course, to how you define masculinity. If you see it as behavioral, rooted in camaraderie with other men and cemented with activities like poker playing, hunting, fighting or, at its most extreme, war, then the refined Clift, with his upper-class background and intellectual bent, doesn't rate. If it's being able to hold one's liquor, well, Clift was a famously sloppy drunk. If machismo depends on chasing legions of women, Clift wouldn't have qualified even had his inclinations been in that direction. All his life, sexual partners came to him, not the other way around--at first because of his beauty, later because of his stardom, still later because of that ineffable air of psychic trauma that made people yearn to soothe the wounds.

If the ideal of masculinity is defined instead as strength that radiates from the inside out, then you get closer to the Siren's take on that elusive quality, and you see why Clift had it, and how.

What? inner strength? from Clift, the man whom Marilyn Monroe supposedly called "the only person I know who's in worse shape than I am"?

You bet. In his art, both physically and mentally, there were none stronger than Montgomery Clift. Perhaps that was why Monty had so little left over to see him through his personal life.

Begin with Red River, Clift's first film (although not the first to be released). Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy says that Clift tried at first to play poker and back-slap with Wayne's set, even going on a bear hunt at one point, but eventually decided he didn't want to join in any reindeer games. "The machismo thing repelled me because it seemed so forced and unnecessary," he said later. Instead Clift worked to put what he had learned on screen. He'd spent three weeks absorbing the ways of a cowboy--how to saddle up, how to walk, shoot, rope and how to measure his words like a man who uses action far more than talk. In the finished movie Clift sits on his horse with easy grace, more than equalling Wayne, who notoriously hated horses anyway.

Hawks may have been unable to resist a joke at Clift's expense, but he was still so impressed with the actor's dedication that he gave Clift a treasured keepsake, a cowboy hat the director got from Gary Cooper. Clift wears it in the film. "He worked--he really worked hard," said Hawks. The physical disparity between the two leads (Wayne was a strapping six-foot-four, Clift a slender five-foot-ten) is what could have undone the final fight, but Hawks has Matthew match Dunson the way he has throughout the picture, through patience, fortitude and a bit of guile.

McCarthy says Wayne eventually gained some respect for Clift, but as far as the Siren can tell, not all that much. "They wanted to give that poor kid an Academy Award so bad that they simply forgot about me," he pouted, after Clift was nominated for his beautifully nuanced portrait of a soldier in The Search. Other costars were less grudging.

Burt Lancaster, a macho actor if ever there was one, had a good idea of Clift's talent, and Lancaster was consequently a bundle of nerves when filming a scene in From Here to Eternity:

The only time I was ever really afraid as an actor was that first scene with Clift. It was my scene, understand: I was the sergeant. I gave the orders, he was just a private under me. Well, when we started, I couldn't stop my knees from shaking. I thought they might have to stop because my trembling would show. I was afraid he was going to blow me right off the screen. [from Movie Talk]

In the end Lancaster held his own in the scene, rising to the occasion, and Lancaster's simmering sex appeal and strength are vital to the movie. But for the Siren, the enduring image is of Clift blowing "Taps," not a hint of swagger about him, but unbowed all the same.

William Goldman has written that the choices of many stars are heavily dependent on how they want to be perceived by the audience. Certain bits of business may be rejected if they make the character, and by extension the actor, seem like a wuss. Clift didn't care. He did what was right for the character. If that meant playing his brief scene in Judgment at Nuremberg like an abused child, so be it. At that point in his career Clift was having trouble memorizing lines, but when director Stanley Kramer permitted him to improvise his dialogue Monty was able to show the man's simple mind and pathetic defensiveness in harrowing detail. It is hard to conceive of many other 1961 matinee idols, even a faded one like Clift, who would have been willing to enact that character in all his heartbreaking victimhood, a man who will never be able to recover the manhood stolen from him by the Nazis.

Clift was not a wordy actor. For him, dialogue was one piece of the puzzle, and depending on the character it might not be a very important piece. His performances begin with body and movement, which is why it is so hard to watch Clift in Raintree County. In that film the pain from his car accident was fresh and so intense Clift couldn't seem to work around it. He's like a pianist playing a sonata with one hand. Drugs and alcohol, always far too prominent for Clift, became the focus of his daily existence as he fought against physical agony for the rest of his life.

But after Raintree County you can see Clift taking what he had left with his body and still using it, as stiffness in The Misfits suggests the old injuries of a longtime cowboy. Clift biographer Patricia Bosworth describes how in preparing for that role Clift got cut on the nose by the horn of a brahma bull. During the actual filming Clift's hands were badly cut during a scene of roping a mare, and a rearing horse squashed him against a fence so hard his shirt was ripped apart--which take director John Huston kept in the movie. Little more than a year later, on the disastrous shoot of Freud, Clift hurt his hands again during a scene where Freud dreams of holding onto a rope that is pulling him toward his mother. Clift kept his mouth shut through take after take. Huston saw the injuries on Clift's hands and reacted with typical sang-froid: "Did I do that to you? Son of a bitch."

It's often observed that the post-war Method actors redefined masculinity. It is more precise to say that Montgomery Clift (who was not entirely a Method actor anyway) expanded the definition. Forever afterward, a man on screen would seem half-formed if the actor could not suggest some sort of inner life, no matter how much derring-do was shown. And exposing that inner life takes nerve, nerve that Clift had in abundance. Rosalind Russell said "acting is standing up naked and turning around slowly." Showing yourself naked doesn't sound so bad--but the Siren wouldn't do it. You probably wouldn't. John Wayne wouldn't have either. Montgomery Clift did, in every role he ever played.

And if that isn't manly, the Siren would like to know what is.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Bitter Taste of Vichy

The Siren has seen only a handful of movies since posting about Jezebel, and two, by pure coincidence, were connected to Vichy France. One was Le Corbeau, Henri-Georges Clouzot's film about the effect of a poison-pen writer. Made during the occupation for the German-controlled Continental Films, it pinpoints mob psychology and collaboration so effectively that it managed to unite right and left in France by offending the hell out of both groups. The other was Un amour à taire (A Love to Hide), a telefilm made for France 2 in 2005, that shows the persecution of homosexuals under the Nazis. Clouzot's movie, itself made under circumstances of collaboration and without a single scene of Nazi atrocity, makes far more telling points about the era, but that isn't surprising. The comparison between the two films is somewhat unfair and the Siren admits this right off the bat. It's like watching CSI: New York and sitting down to compare it with The Naked City. Taken together, though, the Siren does think Le Corbeau and Un amour à taire highlight the problems she has with certain fictionalized Holocaust movies.

Le Corbeau would easily have made the Siren's Top 25 Foreign Films had she seen it in time. Set in "the present," it shows a small French town convulsed by a series of poison-pen letters, many of them directed at the place's popular young gynecologist (Pierre Fresnay). On this simple framework Clouzot and his co-screenwriter Louis Chavance build that rare and precious cinema specimen, a genuinely subversive film. Clouzot gives the audience clue upon clue about the identity of the letter writer, who signs the missives "Le Corbeau" (The Raven), and the movie forces viewers to identify with the suspicious locals and make the same mistakes they make. At one point, a key character theorizes to the town doctor that the Raven has a physical deformity. In walks another character, and for the first time you see her pronounced limp. An obvious visual joke, but at the same time Clouzot has guaranteed that neither the doctor nor the audience will ever view the disabled woman in the same way.

The doctor's practice dries up, as previously fawning townsfolk suddenly discover they aren't so sick after all. Wonderfully typical is the local seamstress, whose apologetic tone turns to petulant anger when the doctor refuses to pretend he understands her decision not to come to him. How dare the doctor make her feel bad about her cowardice? She is just the first of a series of aggressive innocents.

Clouzot underlines his points with several recurring motifs. Several times the letters float down from the sky, like bombs, but they are seized eagerly, not avoided. The doctor accidentally drops a particularly incriminating letter into a courtyard and runs to retrieve it. The wide-eyed child who denies having found the letter devours it line by line as soon as the doctor is safely out of sight. As befits a movie about mob psychology, the crowd scenes are particularly memorable. Children burst from a schoolyard, a funeral cortege turns into an ugly rally against a suspect. Eventually, as the consequences of the letters grow more dire and the town's frenzy grows, the final group of suspects are herded into a schoolroom and forced to take dictation (an extremely French form of writing practice that the Siren herself experienced in high school French classes). Dark echos of other roundups occurring when the film was released in 1943 compete with the nasty but undeniable humor of adult "students" bending head over paper and carefully writing out, "Slut! Whore! What about your abortion?"


No such morbid humor occurs in the painfully well-intentioned Un amour à taire, shown on the US version of TV5 recently with a capricious set of subtitles (now you see them, now you don't). The Siren doesn't question the motives of anyone with the spiritual fortitude to tackle this godawful subject matter. The fate of gay men under the Nazi regime hasn't been much dramatized, aside from the groundbreaking play Bent, which the Siren read some years back (she hasn't seen the movie). Somewhere there may be a film that does justice to this part of history. Un amour isn't it, though.

In occupied Paris two gay men, Jean and Philippe (Jérémie Renier and Bruno Todeschini) are busy concealing their affair and trying to stay clear of the Nazis. The childhood friend of Jean, Sarah (Louise Monot), is arrested with her family; as Jews they are all scheduled for deportation. Sarah manages to break free, and Jean and Philippe help her hide. But the safety of all three is jeopardized by Jacques (Nicolas Gob), Jean's brother, who loves Sarah and hatches an underhanded scheme to get her. Eventually Jean is arrested and sent to a concentration camp, and the movie includes a long sequence showing the horrors endured by the gay prisoners in the camp.

At this point, the imperative to remember the Holocaust, always, seems in no danger of being violated by Hollywood, as the crimes of the Third Reich are regularly filmed in one form or another. It is probably no coincidence that most of the fictional movies the Siren considers artistically accomplished--from Enemies to the precise reenactment of The Wannsee Conference--avoid actual depiction of the camps. The effort to dramatize what took place in Auschwitz and its ghastly siblings is always in danger of devolving into melodrama. Melodrama has a fine cinematic heritage but this subject, of all subjects, does not need it. In fact, the stark facts of the Holocaust scream at you to avoid melodrama at all costs. Melodrama, however, is what Un amour serves up, with Nazis interrogating Jean in a manner that owes more to Hitler's Children than Shoah. When Jean befriends a young gay man in the camp, you cringe for what lies ahead, knowing that the companion will die, and die horribly. But this victim's brief appearance in the movie cannot adequately move the audience. He does not have enough presence or life to be more than a way station to Jean's own depressing fate. And if a filmmaker cannot make this death more than that, then the Siren would rather he not show it at all. The death agonies of this human being--just one, mind you, among millions--should wrench an audience to its soul.

Instead of provoking thoughts about what savagery lurks under any civilized surface, or the huge, echoing "Why?" behind the millions of deaths, movies like Sophie's Choice or (god help us) Life Is Beautiful cater to our desire to tease some sort of meaning out of the carnage. It isn't just millions dying a senseless, horrific death under circumstances you weep even to contemplate--it's also a plot device to bring a writer to maturity, to enshrine a father's love for his dewy-eyed child.

Worse, the camp scenes themselves, as intensely as they make the audience feel, play to its smugness. I'm not a Nazi, you think, as you look at the ghastly violence on the screen. I'm too civilized for this. Never again! Can anyone honestly say we have earned that sense of superiority? Surely the Siren doesn't have to go through the sad catalogue of further crimes against humanity committed since World War II. She often thinks of writer David Rieff's bitter remark, "'Never again' might best be defined as 'Never again will Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s.'"

A movie like Un amour invites you to identify with the courageous gay men and the strong, supportive Sarah, not the sniveling, two-faced brother. Le Corbeau tells you, in no uncertain terms, not to lie to yourself. For every Jean Moulin and Gilbert Renault, there were thousands in France who kept their heads down and tried not to make waves. When it was all over, they took out the pent-up frustration on some who were genuinely monstrous, as well as others who made convenient targets but may have been far less guilty, such as the women who had affairs with Nazi soldiers. While they were marched through towns with heads shaved, others like Maurice Papon managed to continue their lives with tidy, Vichy-free biographies. In this, too, Le Corbeau is eerily prescient, as a young woman is carried away screaming in a van, even as the guilty party prepares his final letter.

Postscript: This piece is now cross-posted at Newcritics. Of the things she read while preparing this post, the Siren is indebted to this piece about Le Corbeau at Raging Bull and this one at Jigsaw Lounge.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Bette Meets 90-Take Willie

(The Siren returns from hibernation to join in Goatdog's William Wyler Blogathon. Please follow the links at his place for more on the great, yet curiously underappreciated Wyler.)


She was difficult in the same way that I was difficult. She wanted the best.--William Wyler at the American Film Institute tribute to Bette Davis





It was 1931. Bette Davis was 23 and still new on the Universal lot, scrambling for parts like the other starlets. William Wyler was 29, "not a very good director" by his own admission and struggling to prove he deserved his break despite the (justified) perception that he owed his job to being Carl Laemmle's relative. Davis was auditioning for a part in A House Divided and had hurriedly put on the only size 8 dress she could find. The dress was cut low, and when Davis walked by, Wyler remarked in a voice that carried to every corner of the crowded soundstage, "What do you think of these dames who show their tits and think they can get jobs?" The humiliated actress didn't get the role, which went instead to future flameout Helen Chandler.

So when Wyler, now contracted to Samuel Goldwyn and on his first loan-out to Warner Brothers, showed up to film Jezebel, Davis reminded him of his taunt--and the irony, now plain, that he had made the remark about an actress more willing than any in Hollywood to forego sex appeal when the character required it. Wyler searched his memory for the incident and drew a nice tidy blank, but he apologized to Davis and said he had been having a hard time in those days.

As filming began Davis must have known about Wyler's reputation for repeating takes until the actor was a nervous wreck. Henry Fonda was warned by Humphrey Bogart, who'd made Dead End with Wyler the year before, "Jesus, don't touch it. Don't go in there." But Wyler also had a string of excellent movies under his belt, having guided fine performances from a hopeless alcoholic (John Barrymore in Counsellor at Law), an actress in the twilight of her career (Ruth Chatterton in Dodsworth) and even an actress whose chief qualifications at the time were dazzling beauty and a bed shared with a prominent producer (Merle Oberon in These Three). Davis knew her own self-discipline and fine talent, and she made her bet on Wyler.

Besides, the attraction between actress and director was already evident.

Although Jezebel is often described as a sop to appease Davis after she didn't get Scarlett O'Hara, the Siren's research indicates this isn't the case. The play (produced in 1933, three years before Margaret Mitchell's novel was published) was purchased for Bette Davis by Warner Brothers in 1937, while David O. Selznick was still actively searching for a Scarlett and no decision had been made as to casting. Selznick saw Jezebel , no doubt accurately, as the Warners' way of cashing in on the anticipation surrounding Gone with the Wind and was furious. So in fact, according to GWTW historian William Pratt, Jezebel (which was released in March 1938, eight months before Selznick ever met Vivien Leigh) was the factor that put a period to any chance Davis had at the part. Davis herself always denied the "consolation prize" idea, but in her sunset years she loved to intimate she had come close to Scarlett. Alas, that isn't true either--she was never very high in the running. As early as 1937, when Selznick was working out distribution deals, he rejected an offer from Warner Brothers that was contingent on casting Errol Flynn and Bette Davis and told friends that he would cast Katharine Hepburn as Scarlett before he would consider Davis.

Despite its being forever linked with GWTW, Jezebel is its own animal, a movie just as concerned with the fate of a strong-willed woman in a rigid society, but more harshly realistic about the ways society revenges itself. As a girl the Siren much preferred Scarlett to Jezebel's Julie Marsden. She hated the way Julie is humiliated, not merely in the excruciating ball sequence, but also when she is coldly rejected in favor of the vacuous Margaret Lindsay (a perfectly cast actress whom Davis couldn't stand in real life). Ashley makes his sexual attraction to Scarlett quite clear, but once Henry Fonda rejects Julie, it as though he never loved her at all. Later in life the Siren came to see that Jezebel--while it cannot compare with GWTW's vast historical canvas, indelible characters and peerless production values--is the more biting social commentary.

That may seem impossible, given that Wyler's pictures generally affirm rather than challenge social convention, helping to explain the appeal to Oscar voters as well as the films' rejection by those who prefer "termite art." You can read Jezebel as a straightforward women's tale of the comeuppance of a first-rate scheming bitch, and no doubt that is the tale Wyler and Davis thought they were filming. The movie approves of her treatment, audiences then approved of it and audiences today usually do as well. Witness the reviews that refer to the character as "Jezebel," instead of her name, and speak of her "deserved" humiliation at the Olympus Ball. But director and actress, through their careful attention to Julie's character, create something more complicated. Together Wyler and Davis show us an intelligent and headstrong woman who can exert her will only in petty, useless acts of rebellion. Then they show Julie stripped of her autonomy, first in part and then completely.

True to its stage roots the movie has three acts, well-summarized by Nick Davis as The Dress, The Duel and The Disease. Julie Marsden is engaged to Preston Dillard (Fonda) and happily stamping her size-five riding boots all over him. She loves Pres but, with few other outlets for her restless energy, she amuses herself by constantly testing his love. Infuriated by his refusal to leave a board meeting to attend a ballgown fitting with her, Julie rejects her regulation white dress in favor of a vivid red one that is being prepared for the town's most notorious courtesan. (As the town in question is New Orleans, we must be talking about one hell of a whore.) This is a beautifully set-up scene, Julie on a dais and surrounded on three sides by mirrors. Aunt Belle (Faye Bainter, showing why Stinky Lulu has anointed Wyler the Patron Saint of Best Supporting Actresses) and the dressmaker form a Greek chorus of warning and disapproval. (The Siren pauses to ask why, in the 1930s, dresses symbolizing wanton behavior always had some sort of swaying fringe to them. Was it hearkening back to the more sexually liberated 20s?) At first Pres refuses to take his scarlet-clad woman to the ball, then, stung by Julie's suggestion that he is afraid to defend her, he escorts her and sees to it that she is shamed in front of everyone she knows.

According to Davis, Jezebel's script gave the Olympus Ball short shrift and the production manager allotted a half-day to shoot it. Wyler took five days and turned it into the best scene in the film. It is, in effect, a drawn-out death scene, in which you watch the death of Fonda's love for Davis, the death of the old, confident Julie who is certain of her man's love, and the death of Julie's place in society. It is stunningly filmed but wrenching to watch, as they join a full dance floor only to have the other couples leave it, until gradually they are the only ones dancing. The formation is as old as time--the woman in the center, those condemning her forming an unbreakable circle, and the man Julie loves dragging her into the middle to extend her agonies just that much longer. As brilliant as the camerawork is, the Siren finds the scene just about unbearable. Not until MASH, as Sally Kellerman hit the ground in a vain attempt to cover herself, would the Siren encounter a scene that showed such soul-deep humiliation of a woman.

Pres leaves for the north and Julie shuts herself away on her plantation, Halcyon, only emerging to ride her thoroughbred horse in a way that risks breaking her neck each time. Comes word that Pres has returned. Julie, seeing her chance at last, dons the white dress she had rejected a year before and greets Pres, sure of her welcome. "I'm kneelin' to ya, Pres," she croons, sinking to the floor in an unmistakable evocation of a bridal dress being removed on a wedding night. And the Siren always wants to scream, "Get up! get up! don't DO that!" It's almost as lacerating as the ball, because the audience knows what Julie does not--Pres has come back with a Yankee bride. Before Pres can tell her, in comes Amy (Lindsay), Aunt Belle in tow. And here you can see Wyler's hand, because the Davis of Of Human Bondage or Dangerous might have flung her emotions all over the set. Instead, she keeps her eyes focused on Fonda and speaks two words without much emphasis, yet they snap out like her riding crop: "Your wife?" And then you see her denial turn to coiled, deliberate fury, directed at Amy with the politeness Southern women always muster best for those whom they truly hate.

Julie, desperate to win back Pres, begins to manipulate her old beau Buck (an unusually animated George Brent) into provoking Amy at every turn. Pres's brother, Ted, staying at the plantation for plot reasons that remain murky to the Siren, gets more and more hot under the collar until finally he challenges Buck to a duel, which Buck does not survive. Despite the fact that a belatedly remorseful Julie tried to stop the duel, she is blamed by everyone, including the loving Aunt Belle, who delivers the title line in unforgettable fashion: "I'm thinkin' of a woman called Jezebel, who did evil in the sight of God." Act two is over.

Before everyone can leave Halcyon in the same manner Julie once cleared out the Olympus Ball, Act Three is upon us--yellow fever results in quarantine. Julie responds in classic Southern-hostess fashion, telling the guests who now hate her guts, "Ladies and gentlemen, my home is yours, as always." Just in case we didn't realize that yellow fever was serious business in antebellum New Orleans, we get a series of intertitles screaming, "YELLOW JACK!" Ah, how the Siren loves intertitles. Pres hears of his brother's duel and for once it is the nominal hero who swoons dead away. But of course, the leading man can't just faint like a sissy so we learn Pres has come down with the dreaded yellow fever. Julie, suddenly (and, to the Siren, suspiciously) fired with noble purpose, persuades Amy to let her go with Pres to the island where yellow fever victims are being warehoused. The movie ends with Julie cradling Pres's head in her lap, as a simple wagon takes them down to the wharf and an uncertain fate. The swelling music and noble expressions want us to think Julie is choosing redemption through almost certain death. The Siren would much rather think Julie has no plans to die--she believes she's going to nurse Pres through his illness, and she's angling for another chance to hold her man.

So, let's talk about "90-take Willie" and how he directed his actors. The standard image of Wyler is of a director shooting take after take, and when the frustrated actor shrieks "what do you want from me?" he responds with something along the lines of "I want you to do it better." But the image of a rather inarticulate, ESL director doesn't quite play. From an early point Wyler chose his own subjects and his own writers, and he always chose adult stories, frequently from well-known literary sources, and scripts by the best writers in Hollywood. That doesn't suggest a man incapable of telling an actor precisely what he wanted. Wyler reportedly believed that repeating a scene broke down an actor's defenses and unlocked new approaches, but that doesn't mean he never had meaningful discourse with his actors. This fine tribute, by director Josh Becker, repeats a story about Henry Fonda enduring 40 takes of a scene on Jezebel. But Fonda himself recalled it somewhat differently, in an interview in Mike Steen's Hollywood Speaks:

I guess it's rather well known that there are actors who didn't like Wyler, just like there are actors who didn't like Ford or Fritz Lang, etc., because Wyler was known to want to shoot a lot of takes. You know, fifty takes and that kind of thing...I had a very good experience. Wyler and I got along famously. We're still friends. He never took fifty takes, though he might have taken thirty! But it was never without a reason. I've worked with John Stahl [on Immortal Sergeant] who was a director who would take it over and over again without telling you why. It was as though he was saying "If they're going to give me actors like this, what are you going to do?" You know? But with Wyler, every time he did it again he gave you something to think about. He'd say, "This time in the middle the scene react to a mosquito bite." These inventions would just come to him. He was rehearsing with film really! And that wasn't bad because I like rehearsals. So it was a good experience with Wyler, and I liked it very much.

Bette Davis later said that the moment when she began to trust Wyler's direction completely came when he forced her to watch dailies of a scene in Jezebel where she was coming down a staircase. He had shot the scene some thirty times, annoying the living daylights out of her. But when she saw the rushes, she realized that one take had "captured a fleeting, devil-may-care expression" on her face that was perfect for Julie. After that, she endured the takes. And like Fonda, she claimed that Wyler did make suggestions: "He'd remain silent, take after take after take, then when I was exhausted, he'd give a suggestion that would turn the whole scene around and make it live." She also said he "never asked you to make a move that wasn't logical. If you told you to go to a window, there was a reason for it."

With the auteur theory has come the persistent critical notion that directing actors is somehow a minor talent--that it is better to be Fritz Lang, insisting that everyone hit those chalk marks, driving people to near-breakdowns and consequently seldom having the same leading actor twice, than to be William Wyler, with your name attached to many great performances but (allegedly) not to any one overarching vision of film. The Siren says it's a fine thing to be either one.

There is a book to be written about William Wyler and Bette Davis. The story has the arc of a perfect women's picture. There's that inauspicious first meeting. There's the new meeting years later, on the set of the movie that would win Davis her second Oscar (and the first she truly deserved). Move through the director and star having a torrid extra-marital affair, carried on in the days of studio "morals clauses," when adultery came with the very real risk of ruined careers. Then Davis having an abortion during the filming of the even greater The Letter, and never telling Wyler. Continue with Davis' tale of how her single, highhanded act destroyed their chance for marriage. Then the last film together, where conflict reaches a level than ensures they never work together again. Finally, a meeting on Wyler's set much later in life, where Davis claimed, "I still saw that old gleam in his eye..."

Yes, a good story. But not as good as the movies they made together.

(Material on Davis and Wyler's personal relationship comes primarily from I'd Love to Kiss You: Conversations with Bette Davis, by Whitney Stine. Other sources include A. Scott Berg's Goldwyn and David O. Selznick's Hollywood by Ronald Haver.)

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley

(Part Two of the Siren's thoughts on Nightmare Alley. Part One is here.)

You have to say one thing for Tyrone Power, even in a depressing movie he has a way of lifting a gal's spirits. The more the Siren reads about Power, the more affection she develops for the man. According to everyone who ever knew him, Power desired two things above all: respect as an actor, and a happy, stable family. Life gave him too little of either. Several of his adventure movies are still well-loved, such as The Black Swan and The Mark of Zorro, but few were the roles that gave him a chance to created a complex character. Nightmare Alley shows he had real ability under the gloss.

That Power worked so hard to put Nightmare's Stanton Carlisle on the screen tells you something about him as an actor. Take a look at the brilliant Montgomery Clift, for example, who has a large reputation for emotional nakedness on-screen. Given the chance to play Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, Clift bailed at the last minute, saying he didn't want to play more love scenes opposite an older woman after doing The Heiress. Others have noted that the part might have rung a bell (more like a cathedral) regarding Clift's relationship with far-older singer Libby Holman. Power, on the other hand, with a resume dominated by candy-box historicals and swashbucklers, fought long and hard for the chance to play the lead in a movie that equates entertainment with fraud and ends with his character barely hanging onto humanity.

Nightmare Alley opens in late afternoon at a carnival--not a big flossy one, but a low-end affair serving the shirtsleeved masses. Power is killing time before his act goes on, snapping his gum and restlessly wandering around the grounds. He starts watching the sideshow geek, the debased individual whose "act" consists of biting the heads off chickens. Salary: one bottle of rotgut a day. Behind the geek's barker we see a big painting of what appears to be the Piltdown Man on a bad day, but we never see the face of the real geek. Instead, the camera focuses on the barker's patter, the geek's screams and Power's reaction. "How does a guy become a geek?" wonders Power to another worker. He doesn't get a real answer. But if you have watched much film noir at all, the question alone is the foreshadowing equivalent of dropping a counterweight on your head.

Stanton is working the crowds for the carnival's phony seeress, Zeena (fabulous Joan Blondell, sexy as ever, but just past the point where "blowzy" got permanently affixed to her description). But that's a stopgap. Already Stanton is angling to get the code Zeena used for a mentalist act with her old partner, Pete, now a hopelessly broken-down alcoholic. Stanton is clearly having an affair with Zeena, and clearly he is using her, despite some off-handed regard for the woman. Stanton drops hints, but soon realizes Zeena is still in love with Pete, and won't betray her old partner or their act. Pete, despite his condition, won't give up the code either. One night Stanton tries to ply the drunk with a bottle of cheap booze, but it doesn't work, and Stanton accidentally swaps the hooch for a bottle of wood alcohol. That's the end of Pete, and Stanton gets the code soon after.

That's just the beginning of Stanton's climb. All along his real attraction was to "electric girl" Molly (the remarkably beautiful Coleen Gray). Soon enough he has left Zeena and the carny behind. He marries Molly and moves to a more sophisticated act in a Chicago club, stringing along another group of suckers. At first the new marks differ only in wardrobe and grammar, but one night up turns psychiatrist Lilith (Helen Walker). She's running her own sort of game, secretly recording the socialites who pour out their neuroses to her. She lures Stan into joining forces, and together they set up the biggest con yet: disguising Molly as the long-dead love of a wealthy old man. But Molly can't go through with it, and the scheme unravels. Stan has the tables turned on him by Lilith. He goes on the run, and becomes utterly dependent on booze as he hops freight cars. Eventually--inevitably--he winds up back at the carny, willing to do any job...

Power was about 33 when the movie was made, already getting a bit hooded in the eyes and softer around the jaw, but still completely gorgeous. His looks get little direct comment in the movie, but Power's beauty is vital. You don't have to wonder why Blondell doesn't seem put off by Stanton's barely concealed ambition. Stanton knows something Power himself must have known well: Looks matter, they matter a lot. See the elderly lady in the Chicago nightclub blush and lower her lashes at Stanton's approach. Watch the way Stanton draws back when Molly's strong-man boyfriend objects to his presence. The retreat isn't that of a man afraid of a beating, but that of someone so sure of his attractiveness he can pick his moment, any old moment.

One strength of the script is the way it fleshes out Stanton's background. To fellow carnies at a roadhouse he talks of life in a orphanage, and how he learned to feign religious devotion because it deflected the brutality of the people running the place. His parents? "They weren't much interested." Fakery has been his survival mechanism for a long time.

That doesn't mean fakery is the whole of Stanton's persona, however. There's a part of him that wants something real. In a scene with the boozer Pete, played with amazing fervor and pathos by Ian Keith, Stanton is immediately drawn in by Pete's "psychic" spiel: "I see a boy...a dog..." Immediately Stanton says yes, that's me! that's my dog! "There's always a dog," says Pete, with a malicious, wheezing laugh. Power moves back like a crestfallen boy--only for an instant. Then he's back to his main plan, trying to hoodwink Pete into getting the code.

Power's best scene in Nightmare Alley comes after Pete's death, when the carny is about to be shut down by a local sheriff. The manager, Zeena, Molly and the other employees all try to get around the sheriff, to no avail. Stanton, possessed of the all-important code and emboldened by weeks of perfecting his delivery with Zeena, persuades the manager to let him have a go. In a tent stripped of its garish scenery, crowds gone and the night-time lighting showing the seediness more than ever, Stanton starts to talk to the sheriff. I sense things about you, he tells the sheriff. There are people who are jealous of you. Stanton mentions the sheriff's wife (there's always a wife). As he talks more and more, Stanton unravels the sheriff's life, bit by bit, breaking down the man's defences. The sheriff starts to glow with the same interest we saw Stanton show Pete--this man sees me, he understands me. Stanton, vampire-like, grows stronger and more confident by the moment. The sheriff leaves, dumbstruck with gratitude for the "truths" he has been shown, and Stanton seems invincible. From here on, until his schemes unravel, Power gives Stanton a much cooler and more collected physicality. When we see him working, Stanton no longer seems restless or nervous. His shoulders are squared, every expression is calculated for effect. His guard comes down at times--when Lilith talks to him about Pete, when he is with Molly, when Zeena and the strong man come for a visit--but until his career as a mentalist crashes to a close, Stanton's poise leaves him completely only when he is alone.

Power's transformation in the sheriff scene is so strong that many viewers, including James Ursini and Alain Silver, who provide the commentary track on the DVD, maintain that the scene shows Stanton has actual psychic abilities. The Siren isn't so sure. Not long before we saw Pete deceive with equal ease and aplomb. To the Siren, the sheriff scene reads like a master con artist finally reaching the very peak of his abilities, becoming more daring with each well-timed, educated guess. There are elements of the supernatural in Nightmare Alley, including Zeena's fearfully accurate tarot cards, and the Miltonian question of whether Stanton's Satanic ambition angers God. But the actual abilities of the humans are left to the imagination. You can read the movie as suggesting a spiritual world, but you don't have to believe Stanton has access to it. And you can also give it a straight Darwinian reading: There is no Guiding Force out there, only the "blind, pitiless indifference" of life's long con.

If Stanton does have psychic gifts, his abilities are fitful and desert him when most needed, after he encounters Lilith. She's another con artist, but she has one essential Stanton lacks: utter ruthlessness. Stanton, haunted by the accidental death of Pete and showing the irritability of the guilty when Zeena shows up late in the film, has a conscience he must fight. Walker, an actress with the slanted eyes and slightly flattened features of a Persian cat, shows no emotion or empathy. Stanton's the sheriff now, lured in by the way Lilith seems to understand his wants and conflicts. Her late-stage betrayal takes Stanton apart with terrifying ease. Power's face and body show him as crushed as he was by Pete, but this time he can't put the mask back on. It would be easier to see his character get shot. His subsequent slide into suicidal drinking doesn't seem like too big a stretch at all.

Siren fave Flickhead, in the comments to her previous post, called Nightmare Alley and The Shining "probably the two finest illustrations of alcoholism and alcoholic thinking ever committed to film," and went on to note "Stanton’s delusions of grandeur at odds with his low self esteem, the alcoholic ‘egomaniac with an inferiority complex.’ Plus the knowing scene of him succumbing to the bottle in his hotel room as the walls close in. Putting the booze to his lips, you can hear the faint screams of the geek rattling in his head." Power wasn't a big drinker (his vice was cigarettes, three to four packs a day), but he shows a deep understanding of addiction. Nightmare Alley was released after The Lost Weekend, but for the Siren, Power's portrayal of alcoholism was more devastating than Ray Milland's (and Milland was good indeed). Perhaps that's because Nightmare Alley isn't a "problem illness" film--it doesn't diagnose or sketch out a cure, it just puts the results up on screen.

Power is so good in Nightmare Alley that the Siren feels guilty about not giving him more credit previously. Not that she ever disliked Power (show me the woman who does), but the Siren admits she was too much in the sway of critics who dismiss him. ("Power was as much like a very nice bank clerk as ever," sighs David Shipman, describing The Razor's Edge. Pauline Kael called him "wanly miscast" in, of all things, The Mark of Zorro, one of Power's best swashbucklers.) Admittedly, there was always something guarded about Power as an actor. You seldom get the sense that you are seeing the whole of one of his characters on screen. The difference in Nightmare Alley (as well as in Witness for the Prosecution) is the way he takes that wariness, the reluctance to reveal, and uses it. When, back at the carny, he accepts that final job offer, Tyrone Power's still-beautiful face is as psychologically bare as any actor in noir.