Richly textured ‘Wuthering Heights’ reinvents a dark classic

Wuthering Heights/2011/Oscilloscope Laboratories/128 min.

Kaya Scodelario plays older Cathy.

I often think of Scarlett O’Hara as the 19th Century prototype for a femme fatale. But I could just as easily make a case for Cathy Earnshaw, the willful, pragmatic and unconventional heroine of “Wuthering Heights,” Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, set in the remote and mysterious English moors in the late 1700s.

Though lots of literature’s leading ladies (including Scarlett) have juggled two men on the sly, Cathy is completely up front in her decision to have her cake and eat it too. She will marry wealthy local landowner Edgar Linton in order to live in comfort and style. But she sees no reason to forsake her intimate friendship with Heathcliff, her treasured companion from childhood, a gypsy orphan whom her father adopts. So, she doesn’t.

And in some ways, the characters in “Wuthering Heights,” a strange, visceral love story that’s also a tale of revenge with an undercurrent of violence, prefigure some of the warped relationships we see 100 years later in film noir.

Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer play Heathcliff and Cathy as children.

Director Andrea Arnold’s version of what she calls “an unsettling, troubling book” is a spare, stark and unrelenting depiction of the dark classic. “I wanted to honor the essence of the book but give myself some room to explore and meander in their childhood,” said Arnold at a recent roundtable. “I try my best not to explain everything.”

Brontë’s novel has been adapted many times in many forms – most famously by William Wyler in 1939, with Sir Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, and in 1992 by Peter Kosminsky, starring Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes. There’s also a Monty Python version called “The Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights.”

In Arnold’s film, the young, madly devoted lovers are played by Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave. Kaya Scodelario and James Howson play the older Cathy and Heathcliff. Lee Shaw is particularly chilling as the abusive Hindley (Cathy’s brother). Beer, Glave and Howson make their acting debuts here. Says Arnold: “I have this fascination with authentic faces. I trust in cinema that a face can tell you things.”

This “Wuthering Heights” has minimal dialogue, no score, rough camerawork and a great deal of cruelty, to animals as well as people. Arnold makes the decision not to focus on exposition and thankfully avoids shaping the story to be “accessible.” Instead, with rugged images, rich textures and stinging performances, Arnold evokes a feeling of what life might have been like at that time – wild and brutal, isolated and tedious, and often short (Brontë died in 1848 at 30) – but also perhaps coolly purposeful and fiercely in the moment.

“Get over it, move on,” a modern audience might urge Heathcliff. But taking that attitude misses the point. In choosing to cling so stubbornly to the raw, singularly flawed passion he feels, he surrenders to the fact that its failure and triumph define him.

“Wuthering Heights” opens today at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles.

FacebookGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailTwitter

Film noir Friday on TCM kicks off a new feature on FNB

THE NOIR FILE
By Mike Wilmington

A noir-lover’s schedule of film noirs on cable TV. First up: Friday, June 29, an all-noir day on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Times: Eastern Standard and Pacific Standard.

Friday, June 29
6 a.m. (3 a.m.): “The Letter” (William Wyler, 1940) Bette Davis, in her Bad Bette mode, strings along Herbert Marshall and James Stephenson (but not Gale Sondergaard) in the ultimate movie version of W. Somerset Maugham’s dark colonial tale of adultery, murder and a revealing letter. Like most of Maugham’s stories, this one was based on fact. Script by Howard Koch.

Bogart and Ida Lupino play outlaw lovers in “High Sierra.”

7:45 a.m. (4:45 a.m.): “High Sierra” (Raoul Walsh, 1941) “The ‘Gotterdammerung’ of the gangster movie,” according to Andrew Sarris. Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino (both great) as outlaw lovers in Walsh’s classic noir from the W. R. Burnett novel. Script by Burnett and John Huston; with Arthur Kennedy, Cornel Wilde, Barton MacLane, Joan Leslie, Henry Hull and Henry Travers. If you’ve never seen this one, don’t miss it: the last shot is a killer.

9:30 a.m. (6:30 a.m.): “The Fallen Sparrow” (Richard Wallace, 1943) John Garfield, Maureen O’Hara and Walter Slezak in an anti-Fascist thriller, with a Spanish Civil War backdrop. From the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes (“In a Lonely Place”).

11:15 a.m. (8:15 a.m.): “Johnny Angel” (Edwin L. Marin, 1946) Night-life murder mystery with George Raft, Claire Trevor, Signe Hasso and Hoagy Carmichael. Too plain visually, but a nice script by Steve Fisher and Frank Gruber.

John Garfield, Hume Cronyn and Lana Turner share a tense moment in “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” directed by Tay Garnett.

12:45 p.m. (9:45 a.m.): “Deception” (Irving Rapper, 1946) Bette Davis, Claude Rains and Paul Henreid in a stormy classical music triangle. Script by John Collier (“Evening Primrose”), from Louis Verneuil’s play.

2:45 p.m. (11:45 a.m.): “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (Tay Garnett, 1946) John Garfield and Lana Turner make the screen blaze as the bloody, adulterous lovers in this hot-as-hell, cold-as-ice movie of the steamy James M. Cain classic noir sex-and-murder thriller. With Hume Cronyn, Cecil Kellaway and Leon Ames. Script by Niven Busch.

4:45 p.m. (1:45 p.m.): “Hollow Triumph” (aka “The Scar”) (Steve Sekely, 1948) Crime and psychology and doubles and scars, with two Paul Henreids, Joan Bennett and Eduard Franz. Script by first-rate Brooklyn novelist Daniel Fuchs (“Low Company”).

Ava Gardner tempts Charles Laughton in “The Bribe.”

6:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.): “The Bribe” (Robert Z. Leonard, 1949) Ace femme fatale Ava Gardner tempts Robert Taylor and Charles Laughton. Script by Marguerite Roberts (“True Grit”), from a Frederick Nebel story.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Woman in Hiding” (Michael Gordon, 1950) Marital tension with Ida Lupino, real-life hubby Howard Duff (as the wry love interest) and bad movie hubby Stephen McNally (the villain). Script by Oscar Saul (“The Helen Morgan Story”).

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Julie” (Andrew L. Stone, 1956) Doris Day is terrorized by hubby Louis Jourdan. With Barry Sullivan and Frank Lovejoy. Stone scripted.

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (Peter Godfrey, 1947) Humphrey Bogart, in Bad Bogie mode, has marriage problems with Barbara Stanwyck and Alexis Smith. Nigel Bruce co-stars; Thomas Job scripted.

FacebookGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailTwitter

‘Anatomy of a Murder:’ Preminger’s crowning achievement

Anatomy of a Murder/1959/Columbia Pictures/160 min.

Criterion’s DVD rerelease of “Anatomy of a Murder” is this month’s giveaway prize. To be entered in the draw to win, just make a comment on any post this month.

By Michael Wilmington

Lee Remick is sexy and flirtatious Laura Manion, a part originally intended for Lana Turner. Laura's dog Muff is frequently at her side.

One of the best and most true-to-life of all courtroom dramas, “Anatomy of a Murder” is also the best film producer-director Otto Preminger ever made. And he was a master – of film noir (“Laura,” “Fallen Angel,” “Whirlpool,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” “Angel Face”), of urban drama (“The Man with the Golden Arm”), of romance (“Bonjour Tristesse,” “Daisy Kenyon”), of historical epics (“Exodus”), of spy dramas (“The Human Factor”), of musicals (“Carmen Jones”) and, most characteristically, of dramas that examine big, complex institutions: “Advise and Consent,” “The Cardinal,” “In Harm’s Way.”

“Anatomy” is a great, realistic film on a great subject, with writing that cuts to the bone. It also has one of the most famous title sequences (by Saul Bass) in movie history. And one of the most influential scores, original jazz, composed and played by Duke Ellington.

The film’s source material was a best-selling book by John D. Voelker, a Michigan State Supreme Court Justice, using the pen name Robert Traver. He based the book on an actual murder case in which he’d been the prosecuting attorney. In that trial, an Army man shot and killed a popular small-town bar-owner who, he said, had raped his wife.

From left: James Stewart plays a lawyer defending an Army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) with help from his old friend and fellow lawyer (Arthur O'Connell).

Voelker/Traver and Wendell Mayes adapted the book and a phenomenal cast brought the story to the screen. We see Jimmy Stewart at his best as the wily and ingenious old-school defense lawyer Paul Biegler, Ben Gazzara as his cocky murder-trial defendant/client Army Lieutenant Frederick Manion, Lee Remick as Manion’s sexy wife Laura, George C. Scott as the icily astute prosecutor Claude Dancer, Eve Arden and Arthur O’Connell as Paul’s sharp-tongued secretary Maida Rutledge and Paul’s amiably soused fellow counsel Parnell McCarthy. The trial’s owlish, chatty but punctiliously fair Judge Weaver is played unforgettably by famed attorney Joseph Welch. Kathryn Grant is also memorable as the sweet but mysterious Mary Pilant.

If Paul is going to get Manion off, the only defense that is likely to work is Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity – an “irresistible impulse” that drove Manion to kill his wife’s rapist. The movie makes clear that Paul is not necessarily seeking the truth, but a victory for his client. So the trial becomes, in some sense, a piece of theater. Paul is creating a dramatic scenario that we know is a slanted one. Judge Weaver is there to mediate, but also to be a kind of commentator and chorus.

At the same time, Preminger (the son of a Viennese trial lawyer and a law school graduate who never practiced law himself) gives us a course in what happens during a trial and why the American legal system, for all its seeming flaws, is a model of both legal science and human compassion.

We want Paul Biegler to win, but mostly because he’s played by Jimmy Stewart – who brilliantly manipulates his movie persona as the stammering, sincere, dryly funny hero, while also showing us a somewhat devious side beneath the mask. It’s an incredibly adroit performance, as good as Stewart’s signature roles as George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Scottie Ferguson in “Vertigo,” and Jeff Smith in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

And Stewart anchors an eminently satisfying cast. Remick is wonderful as Manion’s flirtatious, cheerfully brazen and narcissistic wife Laura, a part originally intended for Lana Turner. The prosecution’s arrogant head lawyer Claude Dancer is played with nerveless intensity by Scott. Stewart, O’Connell and Scott got Oscar noms for their work.

Preminger shot the movie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (Marquette, Ishpeming, Big Bay and Michigamme). The streets, the bar and the courthouse are real. And the scenes in Paul’s home (with its books, fishing gear and record collection) were shot in Voelker’s own house. “Anatomy” has the flavor of a semi-documentary, or of one of those Henry Hathaway crime dramas/noirs of the ’40s: “The House on 92nd Street,” “Call Northside 777” (with Stewart as a crusading Chicago reporter) and “Kiss of Death.”

Laura (Lee Remick) and her husband share pathology as well as passion.

Preminger’s filmmaking style is often called “objective.” He doesn’t try to force reactions on us, instead leaving us free to observe and judge. “Anatomy of a Murder” is especially ripe for such analysis, since the audience is essentially the jury.

But there’s a catch. Does anyone really watch a Preminger movie without knowing who the good guys and bad guys are? Even in “Anatomy of a Murder” we sense Paul might be defending a guilty client, but we also know he’s upholding the law, and his vision of it: the depth, mercy and grandeur of the law in which he deeply believes.

The fact is that Preminger is never completely objective. A lawyer as well as a man of the theater, he is always arguing a viewpoint, letting us know whom he likes and whom he doesn’t. He just does it in a subtler, more stylish, less forced manner than most other directors.

What’s special about Preminger’s cinematic style is his propensity for long takes and single shots with an unobtrusively moving camera. Preminger once said that, ideally, every scene should be done in a single shot. And that’s often what he often tries to do, for the sake of the actors (who don’t get their performances chopped up) and to preserve the feel of realism.

Lee Remick, Eve Arden and James Stewart appear in a courtroom scene.

To some in 1959, “Anatomy” looked like an opportunistic and deliberately sensational shocker, with a script that contained words such as “rape,” “bitch” and panties.” The film was even banned temporarily in Chicago. But Preminger played anti-censorship battles with such shrewd facility that it sometimes seemed he had gulled the censors into being his unofficial P.R. team.

“Anatomy of a Murder” may have raised hackles in its day, but it’s survived as a movie treasure and is one of the top films from 1959 – a year that also saw the release of classics like Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur,” Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo,” George Stevens’ “The Diary of Anne Frank” and Vincente Minnelli’s “Some Came Running.”

Preminger’s trial drama can stand with any of them.

“Anatomy” will play Friday and Saturday at the New Beverly in LA.

FacebookGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailTwitter

One of film noir’s most memorable duos: Gardner and Lancaster in ‘The Killers’

“The Killers” plays today at 4 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as part of AFI FEST 2011.

The Killers/1946/Universal Pictures/105 min.

Of all film noir’s femmes fatales, Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins in “The Killers” ranks as the most devastatingly efficient. She doesn’t waste time chit-chatting or getting to know a guy. Just a glance gets them hooked and firmly planted in the palm of her hand. “Swede” Andreson (Burt Lancaster) takes all of 10 seconds to fall for her and then get lured into “a double-cross to end all double-crosses.”

The Swede (Burt Lancaster) falls for Kitty (Ava Gardner) in about 10 seconds.

Based on the famous Ernest Hemingway short story, this 1946 film is the crowning achievement of one of Hollywood’s most prolific noir directors, Robert Siodmak, earning him an Oscar nomination for best director and leaving us with some of the genre’s most memorable characters.

The films starts with two hit men (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) coming to get the Swede, who lies back in his lonely little bed and passively accepts his fate. (This is the only part of the movie that comes from Hemingway’s story.) The fact that Swede left $2,500 to an Atlantic City chambermaid piques the interest of insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien). Reardon senses there is much more to Swede’s story and pieces together, through a series of flashbacks, the events leading up to the murder.

Of course, there’s money involved and dogged, determined Reardon links Swede to the infamous Prentiss Hat Company robbery. The $250,000 score was never recovered and Reardon’s firm had to pay out for that loss.

Swede doesn’t seem like a career criminal. He was a boxer until an injury forced him to quit and his childhood pal Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) tried to sell him on being a cop. But the Swede wanted something that paid more than a police paycheck. Oh and did I mention a girl named Kitty? One look at the sultry temptress has him dumping his sweet girlfriend Lilly (Virginia Christine) and doing anything Kitty says.

You’d think taking the rap for Kitty and doing three years “in stir” would be a bit of a wakeup call for Swede but not so much. This is noir, after all. By the time the Swede is out of jail, Kitty’s dating Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker), the mastermind of the Prentiss caper. The Swede gets involved with this job, along with Dum-Dum (Jack Lambert) and Blinky (Jeff Corey). Swede’s fellow ex-con Charleston (Vince Barnett) takes a pass on the job, but that doesn’t raise any red flags.

The robbery goes according to plan but there’s a twist on a twist that only Reardon figures out; sourcing his facts by scouring each of the robbers for info and playing one against the other. (You can see how this film, along with Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” entrenched itself in Quentin Tarantino’s brain.)

It may seem that the Swede isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but he comes across as decent and sympathetic – a testament to Lancaster’s skill as a subtle but powerful performer and Siodmak’s way with actors. Gardner also gives her character nuance along with vampish flair. My only complaint is that they don’t get enough screen time together, but that said, O’Brien is a lot of fun to watch.

The acting, the dramatic (high-contrast) shadow-slicked compositions, the fatalistic mood, the sexy script and the music all contribute to the film’s status as one of the best noirs ever made. Anthony Veiller wrote the screenplay with uncredited help from Richard Brooks and John Huston; after a dispute with producer Mark Hellinger, Huston quit. The original music by Miklós Rózsa helped inspire the theme of TV’s “Dragnet.”

Robert Siodmak

Ernest Hemingway

Siodmak lost the Oscar to William Wyler for “The Best Years of Our Lives.” (The fierce competition that year also included “Brief Encounter” by David Lean; Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which has a 15-minute noir segment; and “The Yearling” by Clarence Brown.)

A German Jew, Siodmak came to Hollywood in 1940 and made his reputation as a crime/whodunit director with works such as “Phantom Lady” (1944), “The Suspect” (1945), “The Spiral Staircase” (1946) and “Criss Cross” (1948).

Though he is highly regarded now for his meticulous, tight storytelling and stylish visuals, his popularity diminished in the 1950s. He returned to Europe in 1953. Four years later, his “Nachts, Wenn Der Teufel Kam”/ “The Devil Strikes at Night” competed in the Oscars for best foreign film but Fellini’s “Le Notti di Cabiria”/“The Nights of Cabiria” (Italy) claimed the prize.

Apparently, Gardner’s performance in “The Killers” even impressed Hemingway and spurred a friendship between the two. Given that Hemingway was fond of a drink and Gardner hoped to leave this world “with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whisky in the other” it was probably quite a bond.

FacebookGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailTwitter

In ‘The Letter,’ Bette Davis captivates as a woman both elegant and evil

The Letter/1940/Warner Bros. Pictures/95 min.

“Strange that a man can live with a woman for 10 years and not know the first thing about her,” says Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) in 1940’s “The Letter,” directed by William Wyler. The woman in question is Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), vivacious, charming, self-assured and willful. The man is her husband Bob (Herbert Marshall), sweet, gentle, kind and trusting, and apparently not the sharpest tool in the shed. Or maybe he’s just too busy with work – he runs a rubber plantation in British Malaya. Leslie runs the house and occupies her free time with lace work, tennis parties and gin slings.

Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall play a married couple in "The Letter" from 1940 by director William Wyler.

Howard, a lawyer and friend of the couple, makes his comment in the course of defending Leslie after their tranquil existence suddenly becomes threatened. While Bob is away on business, Leslie receives a late-night visit by an acquaintance, Geoff Hammond, who professes his love for her and tries to force himself on her. So, she shoots him dead; a clear case of self-defense to hear her tell the story. And who doesn’t believe Bette Davis when she’s holding court?

It’s an unpleasant matter, “horrible,” as she says, to be dispensed with as quickly and neatly as the British colonial justice system will allow. And that’s pretty quickly and neatly as these are white, upper-middle-class, upstanding citizens of the empire. It’s smooth sailing, until the appearance of a letter, in Leslie’s handwriting, demanding that Hammond come over the night of the murder and noting that Bob would be away all night.

The letter is in the possession of Hammond’s wife (Gale Sondergaard), a Eurasian native, and she’s willing to let it go for $10,000. But keeping it away from the prosecution and keeping it away from Bob are two different things.

While “The Letter” predates the most prolific period of classic American film noir and its femme fatale is a patrician, married Englishwoman, it is nevertheless a fine example of the form. Just look at the dark, moody, high-contrast lighting, courtesy of cinematographer Tony Gaudio. Nearly every interior scene contains shadowy black bars suggesting confinement. Exterior scenes of lush moonlit landscapes and close-ups of those Bette Davis eyes (the opening scene is particularly memorable) convey the surfacing of the wild, devilish impulses we all struggle to contain.

Then there’s the taut direction by Wyler and sterling acting all round. Wyler, one of Hollywood’s most admired directors, demanded subtlety from Davis, knowing that her strength would resonate on its own. As Leslie Crosbie, she’s an extremely complex femme fatale, equal parts supreme elegance and base evil, one minute winning our sympathy, the next minute making us feel like utter fools for liking her.

Known for being a perfectionist, the German-born Wyler earned the nicknames “90-take Willie” and “Once Again Wyler.” He and Davis had worked together on 1938’s “Jezebel” (for which she won her second Oscar; the first was for “Dangerous” from 1935, directed by Alfred E. Green). Wyler and Davis had an affair that lasted through the production of “Jezebel.” He remained one of her favorite directors. Wyler won three best director Oscars, for 1942’s “Mrs. Miniver, “The Best Years of Our Lives” from 1946 and 1959’s “Ben-Hur.” [Read more...]

FacebookGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailTwitter

‘The Letter’ quick hit

The Letter/1940/Warner Bros. Pictures/95 min.

Some things never change. Whether you are talking via texts or parchment paper and feather pens, femmes fatales should always take care to destroy any incriminating evidence of the “Dear So and So,” variety. If in doubt, just watch the formidable Bette Davis in “The Letter” directed by William Wyler, a masterful director and the perfect match for Davis.

FacebookGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailTwitter

Noir greats at LACMA; a Nicholson noir night at the Aero

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has a particularly good lineup of classic and neo noirs this month.

“Rear Window” (1954) 1 p.m. Tuesday, July 12

“Pickpocket” (1959) 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 16

“Bay of Angels” (1963) 9 p.m. Saturday, July 16

“The Letter” (1940) 1 p.m. Tuesday, July 19

“The Honeymoon Killers” (1970) 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 21

Bette Davis stars in "The Letter" by director William Wyler.

“In a Lonely Place” (1950) 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 22

“The Long Goodbye”(1973) 9:15 p.m. Friday, July 22

“Mulholland Dr.” (2001) 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 23

“The Lady from Shanghai” (1948) 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 29

“The Conformist” (1971) 9:10 p.m. Friday, July 29

Tickets range from $2 for the matinees to $10 for evening double features ($5 for one film only). Discounts for LACMA members and seniors. For tickets, call 323-857-6010 or visit the web site; there is a $2 charge to buy online. For synopses of the movies, see LACMA’s listings. LACMA is at 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, 90036.

Additionally, the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica is running a “Jack Nicholson Noir” double bill on Saturday, July 23, starting at 7:30. The films are Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” and “The Two Jakes,” which Nicholson directed. The Aero Theatre is at 1328 Montana Ave. General admission is $11; members pay $7. Visit the American Cinematheque for the complete schedule.

FacebookGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailTwitter