Bernie pic

Bernie pic

Friday, 19 April 2019

A hard Rain still has heaps to say

Hard rain falls

Rain (1932) is likely to remain as one of Hollywood's most underrated films though it could appeal to a modern audience with its dominant themes of the abuse of power by men over women, and the oppressive effects of religious intolerance. If enterprising film-festival directors defied historical convention and put Rain on noir bills, appreciative viewers might find it.

As I have said, in past previews, I am not much of a stickler for the notion film noir began in 1941 The term film noir was coined by French critic Nino Frank to describe four films made in Hollywood during World War II (1939-45) which only made it to French screens after the war. Frank wrote,
These"noir" films no longer have anything in common with the usual kind of police reel. They are essentially psychological narratives with the action – however violent or fast-paced – less significant than faces, gestures, words – than the truth of the characters.’ 
The four films were The Maltese Falcon, (1941 director, John Huston) Laura (1944 director, Otto Preminger) Murder, My Sweet (1944 director, Edward Dmytryk) and Double Indemnity, (1944 director, Billy Wilder). 
The four films have come to be regarded as noir classics and they all arrived in France after the war but it does not follow that noir began in the 1940s.

The description of a “psychological narrative with the action less significant than" faces, gestures, words" fits Rain (1932) to a T.
I notice Wikipedia now says, “Hollywood's classic film noir period is generally regarded as extending from the early 1920s to the late 1950s.” I am not sure how accurate that statement is. Most noiristas would agree with the end date but I am not sure how much consensus there is for the early 20s as the start of noir. Rain is our earliest movie among the 30 in our public domain noir series.

Rain director Lewis Milestone (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, 1947, not long before his blacklisting) and  cinematographer Oliver T Marsh (the  noir Rage in Heaven, disappointing,  despite the cast of Robert Montgomery, Ingrid Bergman, and George Sanders) dabble effectively in  the use of light, extreme close-ups, unusual angles and sets, as well as shadows, and vertical lines, some of the tricks European Expressionists brought to Hollywood in the 1920s.  

Unequal power
The plot of Rain added to these techniques the central theme of unequal power, a  favorite of 1940s noir.
Themes of sexual and religious assault were bound to strike resistance in the 1930s, just as they would likely do today. That Rain passed the censors was due to it being filmed in period between when the Hays office and its Motion Picture Production Code were set up in 1930 and when the censors become very strict in 1934. In 1932, Rain came to the screen with the message at the beginning that it had been passed by the National Board of Review.
The film, a faithful translation of  a Somerset Maugham story, was resisted by audiences, who had made a success of the more sanitized 1926 silent version starring Gloria Swanson period.
Joan Crawford who was a very popular actor at the time was advised not to take on the role of prostitute Sadie Thompson. As it turned out, she incurred the wrath of many of her fans who expressed their displeasure through letters.
Crawford said her performance was dreadful and blamed director Lewis Milestone who she said gave her no guidance as to how to play the role. Critics concurred that the part was a miss for Crawford with one reviewer even criticizing her over-the-top attire as a prostitute. That reviewer did not say male lead Walter Huston looked too puritanical for his role as a missionary.
Professional and public critics were probably a little squeamish about a story of missionary Alfred Davidson (Huston) using his political influence, righteousness, and even physical height to intimidate a young woman. The film centralizes Davidson’s repressed sexuality but scenes such as  Huston atop stairs hectoring Crawford below emphasize that sexual abuse by males is usually a perversion of power.
The movie is set in the America Samoan capital of Pago Pago, one of the wettest places on earth but with a large harbor making it a stop-over port for passenger ships such as the one, carrying Alfred Davidson and Sadie Thompson. The Americans had set up a naval base at Pago Pago but left the rest of the south Pacific island as they found it, creating a contrast between transient Europeans and Americans, and the Native population.

Religious fundamentalist Davidson is charged with looking after the moral welfare of Natives of lands other than American Samoa. But his political influence extends across the Pacific and to the American-Samoan Governor whom he persuades to deport Sadie Thompson to America. That decision is the catalyst for tragedy.   
The beating of the drums and the incessant rain symbolize natural urges clashing with puritan civilization but there is a more subtle reading of the movie. It is when Davidson breaks Thompson’s spirit and turns her into a disciple that the missionary develops sexuul urges for her.

This is an enthralling film with some excellent photographic innovations. Despite Crawford’s self-criticism, her acting is more than adequate and Milestone's direction keeps us interested all the way through.
As it was based on a play version of Maugham’s story, some viewers night find it to0 talkie. I am somewhat biased towards loquacious films if the dialogue is good and some is excellent here.

Good lines
“We live in the day of the new commandment– thou shalt not enjoy themselves.”
“He will break your back to save your soul.
“ the evil of too much work.”

The players

JOAN CRAWFORD was very successful Hollywood actor by 1932 and she had specialized in playing determined working-class young women in dramas, comedy, and musicals. While successful with a loyal following, she had amassed a portfolio of unremarkable films except for Grand Hotel (1932) which was a series of vignettes set in the title establishment. Grand Hotel was based on a 1929 novel by Vicki Baum who also wrote the story which became the noir The Great Flamarion (1945)
It seems Crawford took on the role Sadie Thompson to add credibility to her acting career, a decision she regretted the rest of her life.
Crawford’s career recovered from the critical and box office failure of Rain, only to fall into the doldrums in the late 1930s. In the 1940s, Crawford rose from the trough of fickle fame to become an icon of film noir
Her first 40s noir was A Woman's Face (1941) directed by George Cukor. Crawford played a bitter disfigured woman. The movie was a critical and commercial success.
Four years later Mildred Pierce (1945) based on a novel by James M. Cain and directed by Michael Curtiz won Crawford the best actor Oscar for a film which has become recognized as a noir classic
Noirs to follow were Possessed (1947) with Van Heflin, Daisy Kenyon (1947) Flamingo Road (1949) The Damned Don't Cry, (1950) Harriet Craig (1950) This Woman Is Dangerous (1951) Queen Bee (1951) Sudden Fear (1952) with Gloria Grahame, and Autumn Leaves (1956).

Canadian actor WALTER HUSTON won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the noir The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), directed by his son, John Huston.
You may recall the scene in the first film John Huston directed, The Maltese Falcon (1941) where the ship’s captain delivers the Falcon to Sam Spade. The captain was Dad Walter in an uncredited role.
 Walter Huston is excellent in a restrained role in Rain, as the repressed missionary, unaware of the evil in his heart.

You will recall the 1947 noir Dishonored Lady, starring Heddy Lamarr  and based on the play by  Edward Sheldon and Margaret Ayer Barnes. The playwrights sued the makers of the 1932 film Letty Lynton for plagiarism. The film was a success and Joan Crawford was praised for her performance in the lead role.  However, the film has been unavailable since a federal judge ruled on January 17, 1936 that the script used by MGM followed too closely to the play. Maybe film versions were jinxed as the 1947 Hedy Lamarr vehicle, of which she was was a producer, went over budget and was a box office failure because of this.

Trivia 2
Journalist Mollie Merrick wrote in the Los Angeles Times of September 10, 1932,

Shock of Paul Bern’s suicide and the tragic circumstances surrounding Jean Harlow cut social life to a minimum and will undoubtedly dim the most brilliant opening scheduled for the season: “Rain” having its world premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater tonight. 

German-born American film director and producer Bern was only married to star Jean Harlow for two months when he reportedly suicided because of a night of impotence. One story said MGM faked the suicide note which read,  “This is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation.” 
Bern died on September 5, so we might speculate whether the event did decrease the audience for the September 10 premiere or whether journo Merrick had other reasons for suspecting a smaller than expected turnout to a film given a glowing review.

The verdict

The full film

Noir spoof

Rain (1932) and Beat the Devil (1953) were films which flopped at the box office and in the review pages. Beat the Devil unlike Rain recovered to be a cult hit. Rain remains an historical oddity not worth putting on at classic-film festivals. To my mind, this is an injustice as I consider Rain much superior to Beat the Devil.
In 1951, director John Huston and actors Humphrey Bogart and Robert Morley combined in the adventure comedy The African Queen which was both a critical and financial success and has gone down in history as a classic.
They were unable to repeat the dose two years later with another adventure comedy Beat the Devil which contained noirish elements.
The story goes director John Huston was unhappy with the script he was presented to film in Italy where a stellar cast was assembled – Humphrey Bogart Robert Morley, Jennifer Jones (Academy Award for The Song of Bernadette, 1943) Peter Lorre and Englishman Bernard Lee).

As funny as Cornel Wilde

Huston brought in young novelist Truman Capote who was living in Italy at the time to doctor the script. To my mind, that was a mistake. With a story set in Europe and with some Brits in the cast, Capote tries to be witty like Oscar Wilde but ends up as funny as Cornell Wilde.
Critics and cinemagoers who turned Beat the Devil into a cult hit a decade after its release claimed 1953 audiences did not get the parody.  But the film was obviously a comedy from the start and therein lies the problem. Capote says he was delivering a spoof on films such as The Maltese Falcon. However, there was very little tension or realism underpinning the  Beat the Devil which ruled it out as a comic reflection of The Maltese Falcon.

A lot of the humor is labored or appears self-conscious. Jennifer Jones, an American, is most entertaining as an Englishwoman and she maintains her accent throughout. But she is obviously a comic invention rather than a rounded character.
Bogart seems to be unsettled in his role as he tries to find the right note. He had been adept at playing wry comedy in crime films but he is far less convincing trying to inject a measure of toughness into the weak comedy on offer here.

Beat the Devil (L-R) Robert Morley, Ivor Barnard, Bernard Lee, Maro Tulli, Jennifer Jones, Humphrey Bogart, and Gina Lollobrigida

We are led to believe Morley and Lorre are deadly but they come across as more ludicrous than dangerous. Morley is given so much of the light (as in comic) lifting, the talents of the other character actor villains – Lorre, Ivor Barnard, and Marco Tulli – seem wasted.
There was talk of late-night poker games and drinking after the days’ filming and you wonder whether some of the filming was conducted during the day after the night before. Two characters surprisingly pronounce the word “demise” as dem-ease rather than dem-eyes. In the scene at  52.40, there is an empty chair which at 54.12 has Bogart sitting in it.
The best part of the movie begins at 59.15  when the ship is in blackout and the set is constructed in an expressionist style. The next fifteen minutes are quite fun but it is a case of too little, too late.
 I am surprised at later critics praising the film.  In a 2014 article in The Guardian article Truman Capote  is quoted as saying the film was great fun and the writer goes on to say this is probably why audiences enjoy the film. That is a shaky statement as you can see by the later film Sabrina (1954) where Bogie clashed with director Billy Wilder whom he found autocratic rather than fun-loving like Huston. Yet Sabrina was a popular and critical hit though Bogie was cast against type in a sophisticated comedy. Far more important than a cast having a relaxing time during or after filming is a well-structured script to ensure a good film.

Respected film critic Roger Ebert gave the film five stars and to be fair to him we should look at why. First Ebert plays (Beat the)Devil’s Advocate. "Beat the Devil" went straight from box office flop to cult classic and has been called the first camp movie, although Bogart, who sank his own money into it, said, "Only phonies like it."  I’m hearing you, Bogie.
“The plot is an afterthought. This is a movie about eccentric behavior,” Ebert says. “The movie has above all effortless charm.”
I have to disagree. I thought everyone was trying to be clever and waiting for the applause and they forgot you have to work damned hard to get sustained laughs in a comedy.
J. Hoberman writing in the New York Times of March 29, 2019, does the film no favors by comparing it to the movie often regarded as the worst Hollywood comedy of all time. “Thanks to Bogart’s perplexed underplaying and the anticlimactic ending, “Beat the Devil” was misunderstood in much the way that Elaine May’s not dissimilar anti-thriller “Ishtar” would be in 1987.”
Some readers will recall the Gary Larson cartoon of Hell’s Videos Store which has copies of only one movie. You guessed it, Ishtar.

The Director

JOHN HUSTON has a quite remarkable place in the history of film noir. His very first film was The Maltese Falcon (1941). The film was nominated for a 1942 Academy Award for best picture and writer Huston was nominated for best adapted screenplay. Sidney Greenstreet in his first film role was nominated for best supporting actor.
 From 1941 to 1950 John Huston made eight films and four are among the greatest noirs ever made: The Maltese Falcon (1941) The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) Key Largo (1948) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
Huston was a successful scriptwriter who struck a bargain with Warner Brothers that if he wrote one more successful film he would be given a chance at directing. The winning script was for the 1941 noir High Sierra, starring Ida Lupino and Humphrey Bogart. Later that year Huston chose The Maltese Falcon to direct.
The film was low budget but the director scrupulously planned the entire movie and was fortunate to attract aging siren Mary Astor and two character actors Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet to support Bogie who did not mind playing in a B again as he liked working with Huston.
Huston received 15 Oscar nominations including for best Director at 79 years of age for Prizzi's Honor (1985) for which his daughter Angelica won best actress. He won two Oscars, for directing and writing the screenplay for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. His father Walter won best supporting actor for the movie.

The verdict

The full movie

Our next noir double is

Five minutes to live (1961) and

Whistle Stop (1946)

Our song is from the star of Five minutes to live 

No comments:

Post a Comment