The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970) William Wyler

liberation-lb-jones_420Many directors have gone out with a whimper instead of a bang. Last films by filmmakers have been notoriously bad or mediocre. Now this is not a hard and set fast rule but it seems a filmmaker’s best work is not toward the end of their careers. Don Siegel ended his directing career with “Jinxed,” Sam Peckinpah with “The Osterman Weekend,” Robert Aldrich with “All the Marbles,” and Billy Wilder with “Buddy, Buddy.” Even the great Chaplin laid an egg with “A Countess from Hong Kong.” Other directors have fared somewhat better yet few will claim Hitchcock’s “Family Plot,” Howard Hawks “Rio Lobo” and John Ford’s “7 Women” are among their best. Overall, last films by directors are generally a mixed and disappointing bag. Are they just too tired? Too old? Did they lose their creative spark or maybe just a bad choice?

Now, don’t get me wrong, being old or older does not automatically mean you are over the hill. Far from it. Returning to Hitchcock for a moment, let’s remember he was 72 or 73 when he made “Frenzy,” his next to last film. More recently, Martin Scorsese turned 71 in November and has “The Wolf of Wall Street” due later this year…and he shows no signs of slowing down. And then there is Woody Allen who recently turned 78 and is still turning out fine works like his most recent, “Blue Jasmine.” It may not be at the level of “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Annie Hall” or “Crimes and  Misdeameanors” but the film is a remarkable, complex tale of one woman’s fall from grace and now trying  her place in a new world. Continue reading

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) William Wyler

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This essay is Twenty Four Frames contribution to the William Wyler Blogathon hosted by R.D. Finch’s The Movie Projector. Click here to visit other great contributors to this event.

One of the most moving scenes in William Wyler’s epic film about returning war veterans appears only minutes into the start of the film when Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a disabled Navy veteran who lost both hands in the war, is dropped off at his parents’ home by the two other vets from his hometown he just met at the airport.  The two others, Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) and bombardier Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) remain in their taxi watching Homer as he approaches the house. He halts on the front lawn, feeling a sense of unease about what waits inside. It’s quiet, nothing happens for a moment, suddenly his kid sister Louella appears at the door, sees him, and excitedly runs out to greet her big brother. Homer’s parents are not far behind. They greet him, hesitant at first, his father then hugs him, his mother sobs, both tears of joy and sadness. They are soon joined by Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), Homer’s girl who lives next door. Their eyes meet, they stand still for a second and then she hugs him. Significantly, Homer does not hug her back. Continue reading

Short Takes: The Hard Way (1943) and The Westerner (1940)

 

The Hard Way – Vincent Sherman (***1/2) – The Hard Way is centered by a strong iron clad performance by Ida Lupino who won the New York Film Critics Award for her role as the determined, tough, hard driven older sister willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to ensure her sister’s rise to the top of Broadway’s bright lights.  Lupino’s character is tagged as evil but is she really? The sisters were raised in a small polluted industrial town, both women looking to get out using any means necessary to accomplish their goal. The kid sister, played by Joan Leslie has talent and gets a few “breaks”, mostly amoral breaks promoted by big sister Lupino. When little sister is part of the chorus of a Broadway show Lupino gets the bitter star, played by Gladys George, drunk enough that she storms out of the rehearsal, Lupino then pushes her sister on the producers giving her the opportunity of a life time. It works and she becomes a star! Directed by Vincent Sherman with male supporting roles provided by Dennis Morgan and an excellent Jack Carson. Behind the scene credits also include cinematography by James Wong Howe and montage by future director Don Siegel. Leslie’s performance is debatably the weak link here. Her song and dance number that represents her big break is actually pretty bad making it hard to swallow that it was this routine that impressed the director and producers of the play to give her the lead.

The Westerner (William Wyler) ***1/2 Except for an overly sentimental ending this western duel between Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan holds up very well. Brennan gives one of his best performances as Judge Roy Bean, a law unto himself with a big weakness for the beautiful actress Lily Langtry whom he would never meet. Brennan deservedly won one of his three Best Supporting Actor awards for his role. While on the surface it seems that Brennan steals the movie, Cooper’s subtle performance adds much to the proceedings though it is a secondary part. Cooper is a wandering cowboy who stops in the town of Vinegroon where the only law west of the Pecos is the hanging Judge Roy Bean. Cooper as Cole Hardin, is quickly put on trial for horse thief but manages to save himself through a series of long comical tales about knowing Lily Langtry the actress with whom the Judge is in love from afar. The meat of the film is the relationship between the Judge and Hardin. Whenever the film moves on to other storylines such as the growing war between the homesteaders and cattlemen and a bland love story between Hardin and homesteader Jane Mathews (Doris Davenport) the film slides in clichés ridden tedium.

According to author Jeff Myers (Gray Cooper: American Hero) at the Dallas premiere Coop rode down Main Street during a parade fully dressed in a cowboy outfit on  horseback.  This film also marked the film debuts of Dana Andrews and Forest Tucker.

The Desperate Hours (1955) William Wyler

May Contain Spoilers!

What I have always liked about this film is its sense of unrelenting fear and randomness that it could happen to anyone. That is what still makes this film work well. Wyler is an archetypal style Hollywood filmmaker in the best sense of the word. He never lets the camera intrude on the story.
Three convicts escape from prison and take cover in the home of the Hilliard’s, a “typical” American family of four living in a middle class neighborhood. Holding the family hostage the escaped cons are waiting for the girlfriend of Glenn Griffin (Bogart) to deliver a money package to help with their escape.


This was Bogart’s final role as a gangster and his next to last film before succumbing to cancer two years after the film was made. Bogart once said, his role here was Duke Mantee, referring to his star making part in “The Petrified Forest”, all grown up. It is a good point, in both films the Bogart character and his cronies are holding a group of innocent hostages. Griffin is a sneering, arrogant menace easily willing to lie, cheat and kill to get what he wants just like Mantee. Bogart growls with a viciousness in a perfect career ending role for the man who created some of the most memorable sleaze ball gangsters in cinema history.


As Dan Hilliard the head of the invaded household Fredric March is steadfast, determined to protect his family, capable of battling Griffin in a psychological battle to save his home. He not only has to stand up to the three convicts on the run but later toward the climatic end has to fend off the various law enforcement agencies including a local sheriff who wants to rush in with guns blazing taking down anyone in their path mostly because it would not be good for his career if these criminals got away.
The remainder of the cast does a capable job with Arthur Kennedy as Deputy Sheriff, Martha Scott as Ellie Hilliard, the wife, Dewey Martin as Hal, the younger of the Griffin brothers and Robert Middleton as Kobish the bear like uncontrollable third convict. Mary Murphy as the older of the two Griffin kids is somewhat overshadowed by the rest of the cast. You may remember her as the nice local town girl in “The Wild One.” The one cast member I found wanting was Gig Young who plays Murphy’s much older lawyer boyfriend, older by about twenty years. Except for his performance in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” I have always found Young a rather bland actor. He does nothing to alter those feelings here.


The source story began as a bestselling novel in 1954 written by Joseph Hayes. The following year Hayes adapted the novel into a play that made its way to Broadway in 1955 (winning a Tony Award) with Paul Newman as Glenn Griffin and Karl Malden as the head of the Hilliard family. The story was inspired by several real life incidents. The film was actually completed before the play even opened on Broadway, subsequently it was held back from release until the play unexpectedly closed after Karl Malden left the production after 212 performances.
The change in casting from a young and still relative newcomer like Paul Newman to the iconic Bogart caused an obvious age difference between the convict Glen Griffin and his young brother Hal portrayed by Dewey Martin. Hayes willingly changed the script to accommodate the age difference in the actors. That said it does in no way distract from the story.
Wyler originally wanted Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda for the role of the father with Marlon Brando or James Dean in the role of Glenn Griffin. Later he sought Spencer Tracy as the family head but no agreement could be reached between Bogart and Tracy on who would receive top billing, subsequently Tracy bowed out. Also look for two well known “B” actors in small roles, science fiction favorite Beverly Garland and Joe Flynn of “McHale’s Navy” fame, who plays a motorist whose car is hijacked by Kobish.
As previously mentioned the novel is based on an actual incident which took place in Pennsylvania in 1952 when James and Elizabeth Hill were held hostage in their home by escaped federal convicts. In 1955 to coincide with the opening of the play, Life Magazine ran an article and photographs with the original stage stars (Newman and Malden) recreating some scenes in the actual home where the Hill’s lived (they had since moved away). The Hill’s sued the author, Paramount Pictures and Random House the publisher for $300,000 claiming invasion of privacy. The case was eventually dismissed.


As a director Wyler was well known for being relentless in pursuing the performances he wanted from his actors, many times by intimidation. There was one time he made Bogart work overtime (he and Bogart had an agreement that the actor would quit every day at five). By the time it got to six o’clock Bogart was pissed and put all his frustration and anger into the scene which was just what Wyler wanted. Another time, there was a simple scene where March was to kiss Martha Scott and leave for work. After more than thirty takes Scott asked Wyler what it was she was doing wrong. Wyler said, “It’s not you, I want March to look tired.” He was “acting” too much, his character was supposed to be worn out and upset. The scene took over a day to shoot but Wyler got his shot.


The film received mostly good reviews, one exception was from the ever odd Bosley Crowther of The New York Times who called it “a mere exercise in melodramatic hocus pocus.” Surprisingly the film did not do well at the box office. Part of the reason may have to do with the hold up in releasing the film until after the play closed. “The Desperate Hours” opened in October however, in July a film with a similar theme called “The Night Holds Terror” opened. It is possible the public did not want to see another family held hostage drama and opted out .
A 1990 remake by Michael Cimino with Mickey Roarke is best just left on the video shelf.

The Movie Projector presents the William Wyler blogathon running through June 29th. Click here for more great reviews.

The Collector (1965) William Wyler

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    Freddie Clegg (Terrance Stamp) is an awkward, unsociable butterfly collector. After winning the national lottery, Clegg quits his job as a clerk at a bank and buys a large English estate in the countryside. Oh yes, on the property is a bastion like cellar. Clegg has been stalking the beautiful Miranda Grey (Samantha Eggar), a young art student, who he has developed a fixation on, eventually kidnaps and holds prisoner in the cellar. Clegg is not a rapist nor does he want a ransom. He is a rather prudish young man, the, opposite of the mod swingin’ 60’s generation we would expect to see in England at that time. He desires is for Miranda to fall in love with him. As his “guest”, he serves her food, brings her books, paper to draw on and is always dressed in a proper suit. At times, he seems more like a servant than a captor. After various attempts to escape, Miranda tries to bargain her way to a release by agreeing to be a good “guest” and  not try to escape, however, things do not go well. When Freddie shows Miranda his butterfly collection she asks him “How many did you kill…..think of all the living beauty you ended.”   When she sees her reflection in a glass-encased draw, exhibiting an assortment of butterflies Miranda realizes that she has become part of his collection, just like the butterflies. 

 

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    Freddie’s financial win fall left him unprepared on what to do with his life. He quits his job so he could indulge in his obsession with the beautiful Miranda. Emotionally and educationally underdeveloped he views the world as consisting of two types of people, the haves and the have-nots. Winning the lottery gives him the power to be one of the “haves” therefore he can take what he wants and he took Miranda.

    Unfortunately, Miranda fits Freddie’s warped view of the world. The daughter of a doctor, educated, an art student with a social life, friends and lovers far removed from Freddie’s isolated world. She also is a bit of a snob looking down on her intellectual inferiors and this ends up working to her detriment when it reveals itself in a discussion with Freddie on “The Catcher in the Rye”, and later a Picasso painting. Freddie fails to find Holden Caufield of any interest as a character, nor does he see any significance in the book as Miranda does calling it rubbish.. When discussing a painting by Picasso, Miranda’s try to explain Picasso’s style however, her responses begin to take on a superiority that infuriates and frustrates Freddie, justifying his belief that she lives in an elitist world in which she would never notice him. Thus kidnapping was the only solution to get her to know him.
 collector-eggar1-1  Terrance Stamp is creepy, all knotted up and hunched over.  A magnificent performance though strangely enough, I found there were times that he seemed to be channeling a deranged off kilter version of Stan Laurel. You see it in his clothes, his physical movement and in his speech. This is not negative criticism; I think he gave a wonderful performance as the timid yet disturbed Freddie Clegg, a character who should have a higher ranking in the “celluloid crazies” Hall of Fame. Samantha Eggar gives an amazing performance, scared, bewildered, indignant, terrified and in the end emotionally and physically helpless. Eggar would go on to film other thrillers and horror films of varying quality, from the good (The Brood), to the bad (A Name for Evil). She would become notable for being the last female to co-star with Cary Grant in his final film, the light comedy “Walk, Don’t Run.” Other films Eggar made include the laborious “Dr. Dolittle”, “Return from the Ashes” and “The Molly Macguires.” Eggar would additionally have the dubious distinction of being in the 1973 made of TV movie remake of “Double Indemnity” in which she makes nobody forget how great Barbara Stanwyck was in the role.  

    Film critic Andrew Sarris once wrote that “The Collector”, was the most erotic film to ever to come out past the production code.”  How true. This was 1965 and Samantha Eggar had two nude scenes. Now they are mild scenes considering what is allowed now however, these scenes were provocative for their time. Yet it was not only the nudity that makes the film erotic. Clegg is sexually obsessed with Miranda. He wants her, desires her, yet is so repressed that the only time he can force himself to touch her is when she is lying in his bed unconscious. This scene fades out to black as he begins to caress her body. In the following scene, he tells her that he did not take advantage of her, that he was respectful, while she was in an unconscious state.

   collector21 Sarris also wrote that Wyler’s direction was “horribly impersonal.” Here I believe he was wrong mistaking his “impersonal” style for what is really an unimposing style. Wyler does not let the camera get in the way of the story. His strength is in his visual story telling abilities, the editing, pacing, camera movement and in the believability of his male-female relationships. David Cairns points out in his Sense of Cinema article on Wyler that while the male-female relationships could not be more different in films like “Wuthering Heights”, “Detective Story” and “The Collector”, “they are all perfectly credible and consistent with Wyler’s compassionate but unflinching observation of everything human.”  Wyler was in the final stages of his career at this time making only three more films, the innocuous “How to Steal a Million”, the over blown “Funny Girl” and the uneven but worth seeing “The Liberation of L.B. Jones.”

    “The Collector” is based on English author John Fowles first and best selling 1963 novel of the same name. Both a thriller and a look at class distinction the book was purchased for filming before it was even published. Wyler soon signed on to direct. The screenplay was written by Stanley Mann and John Kohn. According to IMDB, Terry Southern was an uncredited contributor. The film was shot both in Hollywood and in England. Submitted to the Cannes Film Festival in 1965 where it was awarded both best actor and best actress awards.collector-lc

     The filming was not easy for either member of the cast. Terrace Stamp, recently had his first success with “Billy Budd” and according a 1965 TIME Magazine article “put Wyler to the test the  first few days by walking through a retake.” Wyler’s icy stare straighten Stamp out quickly.  Samantha Eggar had it much more difficult. With little professional experience at the time, she was almost fired. There was talk of Natalie Wood as a possible replacement however, both Wyler and Eggar did not give up. Wyler made it obligatory for her to stay on the set during the 43 days of production in Hollywood. Even during lunch, she was not allowed to leave. On weekends, she was forced to rehearse both days, all day long. Actress Kathleen Freeman was brought in to help the inexperienced Eggar. This went on for more than a month. As time went on, Eggar became somewhat rattled and isolated which actually helped her with her characterization whose situation was similar though certainly more dire. There were two scenes requiring nudity. Though mild by today’s standards, since the production code was still in force, Wyler had her do those scenes totally naked, which probably contributed to the overwrought look of her character.  If the film has a fault, it is Maurice Jarre’s music, which is rather off-kilter with the film itself. It makes one wonder what Bernard Hermann could have done with this film.     

    “The Collector” and Freddie Clegg never caught on to the public’s imagination, like Norman Bates and “Psycho.” This may be due to Wyler’s more detached style as opposed to Hitchcock’s. Freddie Clegg and Norman Bates do have some similarities. They both shared awkward social skills; both are loners with little or no contact with the outside world. Freddie collects butterflies while Norman collects stuffed birds. Both men are obsessed with women, Freddie with Miranda and Norman with mother. Like Norman, Freddie is a precursor to the modern serial killers of later films.  The plot device, an individual kidnapping an object of desire, has been used in many films and TV shows since, “Misery” and “Kiss the Girls” being two prime examples. The opening episode of the second season of “Criminal Minds” called “The Fisher King Part 2” uses John Fowles book  “The Collector” as a key piece of evidence in the show. For me, “The Collector” is William Wyler’s last great film. I recommend it highly.