Monday, August 15, 2011

Capsule Reviews: Gentleman Jim, The Roman Orgy, The Killers (1946)

Gentleman Jim (Raoul Walsh, 1942)

Walsh doesn't get nearly enough credit for his technique, but maybe that's because it's all in the service of making good, solid, engaging pictures instead of showing off. He favors the perfect reaction shot over axis rules, and it's always fun (and often funny) to see something as unnecessary as a slightly low-angle shot for a gym trainer talking to customers just to make the squat gym coach look a bit taller. His framing of the boxing scenes is supremely kinetic, the camera darting around the ring to capture spectator agitation, loved ones' concern, coaching and, of course, the fights themselves. Errol Flynn is, as ever, charming to the point of unfairness, capable even of stiffing a waiter without offense. Brash, meaty and frequently hilarious—especially when Jim's Irish family has the spotlight—Gentleman Jim is yet more proof for Walsh as a talent deserving of more recognition than being "merely" a great studio hand. Grade: A-

The Roman Orgy (Louis Feuillade, 1911)

Even in this early one-reeler, Feuillade demonstrates his capacity for sophistication in primitivism, arranging oddities and juxtapositions in long, static takes. As the court watches lions tear apart some hapless servant, Feuillade arranges the scene to have the lions mulling around, backed by a stone wall, and he places the people at the top of the frame, visible through a slatted rail that clashes with the scene. When those lions later crash his titular orgy (which isn't as naughty as you might expect), the vertical arrangement becomes more humorous, the lions capering about the  festivities as terrifed people cling to higher ground. His sense of dense, layered framing and simple direction is the opposite with Griffith's bombastic but typically clean frame and camera innovation, but it's incredible to see how much excitement he can pack into eight simply progressed minutes. Grade: C+

The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

Steeped in menace from its opening of two hitmen driving by night and engaging in a lengthy intimidation match with a diner owner, The Killers is so skillfully plotted and doused in shadow it gets away with showing its full climax at the beginning with its beat-for-beat recreation of Hemingway's short story. The rest of the film doesn't quite live up to this bravura nightmare of macabre, confrontational humor and pitch-black shadowplay, but the less-convincing extensions on the short story is sold earnestly by Siodmak's stylistic flourishes, which use Elwood Bredell's cinematography to search for the tipping point just before shadow plunges into murk. I don't think Burt Lancaster was as tragic again until The Leopard, and Ava Gardner, as ever, puts a pointed heel through the notion that blondes have more fun. It's impossible not to see a young Tarantino gutting this for his own Pulp Fiction, from its broken chronology to its chatty hitmen to its corrupted boxer. Of course, one look at this stark-to-the-point-of-surreal journey to find all kinds of dangerous places to stick one's nosy head in and it's obvious QT was merely the last in a long line of admirers to take something from this archetypal noir. Grade: B

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