Monday, June 11, 2012

Capsule Reviews: Other Men's Women, The Lovers on the Bridge, The Lady Eve, The Purchase Price

Other Men's Women (William A. Wellman, 1931)

Mary Astor herself called this picture a piece of cheese, but cheddar can be mighty sharp. Astor plays one of the men's women, the wife of a chirpy railroad engineer (Regis Toomey) who becomes entangled with his co-worker Bill (Grant Withers), a fall-down drunk who cleans up nicely. With only 69 minutes, Wellman doesn't have time to mess around, meaning Bill and Lily have to fall for each other with such passion they risk everything before most people can even ask what the other does for a living. Wellman's sturdy direction stands back to let the actors work, which isn't the best strategy given how unsalvageable some of the dialogue is but works best when the two men confront each other while working the same engine, the camera calmly letting the tension mount then somehow pulling back even more within the cramped space to capture their fierce, farcical fisticuffs. Things only get more darkly absurd from there, but then part of the charm of a good Pre-Code is the flamboyant yet gritty way things invariably go to hell. In the meantime, have extra fun with James Cagney literally dancing away with the show in a bit part and Joan Blondell as a diner waitress who is, except for Bill, strictly A.P.O.: ain't puttin' out. Grade: B+

The Lovers on the Bridge (Leos Carax, 1991)

Carax's film is pure unadulterated fantasy. That's as true of the grimy, filth-ridden shots he paints in jaundiced, hepatitis-infected yellow at the start of the film as it is the effervescent bursts of romance that blossom between two hobos taking shelter on the closed Pont Neuf. Carax effortlessly imbues the camera with his subjects' perspectives: he uses kinetic but fluid handheld shots to track Alex's (Denis Lavant) fire-breathing ballet, an expressive dance of self-destruction as terrifying as it is thrilling. Likewise, Jean-Yves Escoffier's cinematography bleeds street lights into over-bright streaks, perhaps capturing the encroaching blindness of Juliette Binoche's Michèle. Even smaller shots wow, such as a close-up of Binoche in profile as she holds a candle up by her face, coloring her one "good" eye a sick, bloody red as the eye absorbs and reflects the firelight. This is a playful, audacious work, never more so than in the exuberant fantasy of the Bastille Day sequence, where a paranoid freakout of military buildup explodes into fireworks-saturated ecstasy. The lovers shoot a pistol from the back of Henry IV's equestrian statue, dance uninhibited to a collage of music rolling across the soundtrack and, in the biggest break from reality, water-ski on the Seine as blue sparks shower upward around them like trees lining the Champs-Èlysées. The sequence is a gleeful send up of cinematic excess, as well as one of its greatest exhibitions. Grade: A-

The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)

I greatly enjoyed Sullivan's Travels, paid loose attention (and therefore must re-see) Unfaithfully Yours, and now I greet The Lady Eve, perhaps Sturges' most celebrated work, with near-total indifference. Oh, I cottoned to its exceedingly clever gender politics, with Barbara Stanwyck playing the Platonic ideal of her Pre-Code seductress, a temptress, given the title and snake imagery, on a Biblical level. But the film's cleverness is also its greatest weakness: Sturges never bothers to actually be funny, other than in William Demarest's charmingly asinine valet constantly seeking to link Stanwyck's two identities despite the obviousness of the non-mystery. Everything else smacks of the worst kind of self-satisfied humor, the kind that doesn't even make those who get it laugh, instead merely nodding their heads and saying, "Yes, quite." The slapstick is the biggest outrage, showing Sturges clearly out of his element with pure, universal comedy as he speeds up the film to exaggerate Henry Fonda's banal tumble over a couch. He's much more interested in the subtext of the pratfall—a man, who deals with snakes no less, "falling" for "Eve—than in the actual impact and fluidity of the joke. I've seen this film praised for its "sophistication." Is there a less vital trait in good comedy? Grade: C

The Purchase Price (William A. Wellman, 1933)

But speaking of Pre-Code Stanwyck, there's no substitute for the genuine article. Stanwyck's torch singer, itching to get away from her gangster boyfriend, takes her chance when she discovers a homely friend has used her picture in a mail-order bride service. At face value, Stanwyck is nightmarishly miscast, her sultry, manipulative prowess only to put herself in a situation out of her control. But then, that becomes the draw of the film, Stanwyck operating out of her usual element as a woman so unstoppable that even cities seem to small for her. Yet out in the country, she suddenly seems small, her sensual skills wasted among the brutish forthrightness of rural folk. Slowly, though, she acclimates, learning to care for her doltish but well-meaning husband (George Brent) and the farm he might lose. There are a few deliciously strange touches—Jim revealing himself to be a college-educated wheat-breeder who has perfected a strain, the unofficial head of the local band of drunken louts openly propositioning Stanwyck in exchange for saving Jim's farm—but overall this is a solidly plotted number about a city girl actually taking to the country. But at any rate, it leads up to a good ol' fashioned brawl, and I can't hate a film where the unattractive friend gives her up prospect for marriage for cash, saying it'll free her up to try a man out before she buys. Grade: A-

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