Friday, July 22, 2016

THE UNINVITED - #677



I bet ghost stories are one of the most ancient of arts. Probably right around the first time a sentient human died, those close to him or her wondered what happened to the being inside the body, and then wondered if he or she were somehow still around. Add in the element of grief, and the natural desire to have the person that was lost stay near, and it's a short step to imagining every bump in the night, cold wind, or familiar scent is the deceased sticking around.

One can imagine further that it's comforting to the individual who believes in ghosts, to envision an existence where you never really leave, you can have ways to remind folks that you once were alive, goodbye is never forever.

Which brings us to our movie. Lewis Allen's 1944 spook story The Uninvited. Some of these ideas are touched on, at least to a degree, if not explicitly than implicitly. A ghost haunts an old family home on an English cliffside where she died, and the question of why she lingers still is the central mystery of the film. It's unfinished business, but it is it selfish or generous. Is she looking to expose someone, or can she just not leave her daughter?


Such is the story that brother and sister Roderick and Pamela (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) stumble into when they take advantage of the too-good-to-be-true deal on the spacious home. He is a musician turned music critic and she is...well, his sister, and they leave London, giddy London, with their dog, cat, and lady servant for a view of an ocean and more rooms than they'll ever need. Once there, Roderick falls for Stella (Gail Russell), the daughter of the specter, probably because she was against her grandfather (Donald Crisp) selling him the house in the first place. (You know how men are...) Stella has an unhealthy attraction to the house, and it has a dangerous sway over her. If she visits, don't be surprised if Stella goes running toward the same cliff where her mom plummeted to her death.

Whether that was an accident, a suicide, or a murder is a riddle that will have to be solved if Roderick and Pamela are going to clear the way for Stella to hang out all the time. Local gossip provides different versions of what went down, but as these things go, each new witness the siblings find adds to what came before, altering the tale just enough to keep everyone guessing. Meanwhile, they must deal with the nightly sobbing of the dead woman and their own skepticism. Roderick believes a spirit is crying in the shadows, but he isn't convinced that séances are real--at least not until the one he joins gets away from him.


The Uninvited is an enjoyable horror movie, even if it's not all that horrific. Maybe in its time it sent shivers down the spine--its ghost is nicely done--but it's so damned genial during its non-spook time, it's kind of hard to go with the chillier moments. Which isn't to say it's not entertaining, or even unconvincing, it's just too polite to be frightening. It's lighthearted and romantic, and there is never any convincing threat or unsettling occurrence. Even the big revelation of what really happened on that fateful day has lost its scandalous edge, social mores being what they are and all.

It's a matter of storytelling, not writing. Structurally, the script by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos (from a novel by Dorothy Macardle) hits the right beats, teasing the facts at the appropriate pace; it's the visual presentation where Allen lets us down. There is not much to separate the haunting scenes from any of the others, it all looks crystal clear and decidedly un-moody. Likewise, the characters don't freak out all that much, they soldier through, keeping calm and carrying on. The whole of The Uninvited is just too damned British and polite to ever unnerve the viewer.

So, The Uninvited is best approached as a sort of gothic romance. Like Wuthering Heights crossed with Topper. The ghosts are real, but not too dark to care.



Friday, July 15, 2016

MURIEL, or THE TIME OF RETURN - #824


Time, time, time...see what you’ve done to me?

Time and its effects play an important role in the films of Alain Resnais. In Hiroshima mon amour, two lovers steal secret hours in order to forget the atrocities of war; in Last Year at Marienbad [review], the past emerges at a most inconvenient time for a couple guilty of infidelity--so inconvenient, they try to deny it. In both films, the past and present seem to run along parallel courses, sometimes converging, sometimes becoming jumbled.

All these things come to bear in Resnais’ 1963 film, Muriel, or The Time of Return, crystallizing what the filmmaker had done before in a dual narrative, depicting both the young and the old as victims of repetitious history. If Hiroshima was about the flames of early romance, then Muriel looks at a romance that has burnt out and sifts through the ashes.


Marienbad star Delphine Seyrig rejoins Resnais for Muriel, playing Hélène, a widow living in the costal town of Boulogne. She runs a furniture store specializing in vintage items, and the shop doubles as an apartment for her and her stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée). One could suggest that their home is essentially a storehouse of memories--though largely those of other people. Which isn’t to say they don’t harbor some of their own. Both have secret wounds that haunt them, and Hélène is about to bring some of her worst to the fore. She has invited her lost love, Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien), to come visit. He is eager to rekindle their affair, but she is more interested in poring over what went wrong. You see, back in the day, Alphonse went off to North Africa to fight in WWII, breaking several promises to Hélène, and never returning to her arms.

As we go, we will learn more about why Alphonse did what he did, and also how Hélène was not exactly the faithful paramour she suggests she was. We will also learn what Alphonse hides now, including the true nature of the “niece” (Nita Klein) who travels with him, and how Hélène has a gambling problem. Meanwhile, running concurrent with these revelations is Bernard’s story. He is freshly returned from the war in Algiers, an experience that has changed him. He is now mostly idle, experimenting with art and film, but also in his own love affair. He evokes the name of Muriel when referring to the woman who has a lock on his heart, but that too is a ruse.



For Muriel, Resnais collaborated with writer Jean Cayrol, who also wrote the commentary for his documentary Night and Fog. Together they craft a tricky narrative, one that, in execution, plays with time in a literal fashion. In some scenes, we see two timelines at once. We may see a street at night, and then see a quick flash of how it appears in the day. We also see moments repeat, one on top of the other, compounding increments using slivers of the whole to suggest the complete action. In a similar manner, Resnais employs quick-cut montages to indicate the passage of time, though if one pays attention, it’s almost as if there is more happening than would be possible in the space allotted. As Alphonse’s overnight trip extends, it seems as if months go by; to listen to dialogue later in the film, it’s merely a week.

This makes sense in a world where Alphonse’s trauma from combat is as fresh as Bernard’s, even though decades separate their tours of duty. We are meant to see the two men as one and the same, Bernard is the young version of Alphonse, the future stands next to the past here in the present. Muriel is also Hélène, the woman left behind by a soldier. All is fair in love and war, but in this case, the latter has turned the former into a tragedy.



Yet, we can also see Bernard’s existential plight as a critique of Alphonse’s. What we learn about Bernard’s time in Algeria has more in common with what would go on in Vietnam over the next decade, a predictive of modern warfare. The horror and pain is real and fresh, and lacking the clean justification usually associated with WWII. By contrast, what we know of Alphonse’s time as a soldier sounds almost sanitized, as if it were fiction--which we can eventually argue maybe it was.

So, too, are all the love stories. They are passionate fictions, a clinging to something that never was. Hélène tells Alphonse that, “I loved you with no help from you.” This is true of all of our lovers. They are pursuing their own concerns in their relationships, and the other half of the equation is practically immaterial. This is why none of the versions of their shared stories line up. It’s not just a matter of perspective, but also participation.



As is to be expected, Seyrig carries the picture. As we would see years down the road in Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles [review], she doesn’t really need anyone else on the screen with her--though her co-stars ably back her up. She is particularly good playing off of Thiérrée, whose wooden posture is reminiscent of Martin LaSalle’s meticulously choreographed turn in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. Thiérrée is more operational, while Seyrig is deep in each moment, each emotion. She plays older here, Hélène is middle-aged, but the make-up is casual and not overdone; Seyrig is excellent as the concerned and nervous mother-type. In the first scenes with Alphonse and his niece, when she brings them into her home and feeds them, she never stops moving, putting the needs of everyone else ahead of her own, and thus making her selfish addiction all the more shameful for her.

Eventually, truth outs everyone, and time catches up, and Resnais leaves us both hopeful and unsure. There may be options for a better tomorrow, but it may also just be that the past is repeating once more.



Muriel, or The Time of Return has been available on DVD before, but it’s been a decade or so since the last release, and the new Blu-ray was struck from a recent 4K restoration. The colors are vibrant and the picture is crisp, showcasing the beautiful photography of Resnais’ regular DP Sacha Vierney (who also shot Belle de jour [review]). The disc has several documentary and interview clips, including a 1969 piece with Seyrig and a 1963 chat with composer Hans Werner Henze (The Lost Honor of Katharine Blum [review]), whose ambient score sits in between classical composition and more modern textures, thus expressing the themes of the movie through sound.

Alain Resnais

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

THE PLAYER - #812


My thing about movies that are about movies is that the good ones make me want to watch other movies. If I watch The Bad and the Beautiful, for instance, I’m going to want to chase it with Cat People. Who didn’t watch the opening of The Player back when it was released in 1992 and not immediately go view--or even re-view--Touch ofEvil? Or how about pairing it up with Bicycle Thieves [review]? Better yet, another movie about movies, based on a book about movies, Elia Kazan’s vastly underrated adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. Monroe Stahr, the movie mogul in The Last Tycoon, was modeled after Irving Thalberg, whom surely director Robert Altman and writer Michael Tolkin had in mind when they created Griffin Mill, their motion picture wunderkind, as played by Tim Robbins.

And it’s not just that The Player is about movies, it’s utterly in love with them. You get that right from the virtuoso opening shot, which runs without cutting for 8 1/2 minutes (certainly no coincidence), referencing not just Touch of Evil, but The Sheltering Sky and Rope and a couple of other films that pulled off similar feats (this was pre-Tarantino, mind you). There are easter eggs throughout this thing, and not just the cameos by then au currant celebs, but jokes and winks and the careful placement of other films and filmmakers to cue the audience to what is coming next. Be it Griffin walking under a movie marquee as the lights go out on The Bicycle Thief to signal his own oncoming moral dilemma, or the fake-out of Lyle Lovett walking by a Hitchcock photo as an indicator of suspense and a deep visual pun about “the wrong man.” The murder victim declares, “See you in the next reel, pal,” ironic last words befitting the noir plot Griffin Mill will find himself in, as predicted by the posters in his office.



If you’re a cinephile, you’re going to eat this stuff up.

If you’re not, if you’re just a casual movie fan, then no worries, you’re going to dig The Player, too. It’s more than a collection of in jokes and elbowing Hollywood in the ribs. Altman and Tolkin bring an honest-to-goodness murder plot along with all the references. The Player is a movie that aims to be as good as all the other movies it emulates.

In terms of story, it’s simple. Griffin Mill is a hotshot Hollywood producer who appears to be going cold. In the midst of his concerns that his boss is bringing in his replacement (Peter Gallagher), he’s also getting harassing post cards from an anonymous writer that he never called back. When the threats turn scary, Griffin tries to figure out who it is, settling on one writer in particular, David Kahane (played by a young, nearly unrecognizable Vincent D’Onofrio). Griffin tracks Kahane to a revival screening of the Neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief (or Bicycle Thieves) and tries to reason with him. Only, Kahane isn’t the guy--even if he hates Griffin all the same. Accusations cause tempers to flare and a scuffle ensues, leading to the writer ending up dead and Griffin trying to make it look like a robbery.


And he’s successful for the most part. The only problem is, someone saw the two of them together, and the cops (Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett) think it’s suspicious that the movie exec was somehow randomly the last person to see a no-name scribe alive. This line of thinking is only heightened when Griffin starts dating the deceased’s girlfriend (Greta Scacchi). In any conventional script, Griffin would certainly look guilty.

Which, of course, we know he is, but that’s immaterial. The question that lingers, what will he do to get out of it? That’s what any good suspense movie is about. Plus, we know that the real stalker is still out there, and he could strike at any minute. Somehow these things have to converge, right? That’s what the rules of screenwriting have taught us. Not to mention that the fake moviemakers in the movie we are watching keep harping on the need for a happy ending. Griffin Mill has to find his way out of it, or The Player will fail.


That might actually be The Player’s most ingenious bit, how Tolkin builds in all this conventional wisdom about what makes a successful movie--twists, turns, sex, surprising rescues, happy endings--and then delivers on each. It’s the artiest of blockbusters, The Player is. Like if the Kaufman Brothers in Adaptation cracked the code and managed to sincerely make it work. (Which, let’s be honest, it works in Adaptation; as soon as Donald takes over, the film becomes a crowdpleaser.)

Tim Robbins brings an interesting energy to his performance. He is both slimy and trustworthy, at times believably dim and yet otherwise extremely cagey. It’s excellent casting, how we feel about Griffin is probably how a lot of people feel about Robbins, who himself can be seen as a little pretentious and also a bit of a windbag due to his openness about his politics. Yet, he also always seems like a decent guy, he’d probably be pretty nice in person. We like him, but we want to hate him, too.

Fans of Hollywood lore will see other nods to history in The Player, perhaps most deftly in Fred Ward’s fixer character, which resembles MGM’s Eddie Mannix, immortalized in both the films Hollywoodland and more recently Hail, Caesar! There is also some amusing commentary about television actors wanting to be in movies, which seems only ironic and outdated given how so much and so many have shifted from the big screen to cable television for better opportunities in recent years. Tim Robbins himself was last seen on HBO in a bad Dr. Strangelove rip-off.



Television may be the current perceived assassin of big studio pictures, but moviemakers have had many threats before this one--including TV, which was originally supposed to be the death knell of the moviegoing experience back in the 1950s. Most would say the changing of the guard in the 1960s was the true end of Golden Age Hollywood--which is largely what Altman is paying tribute to here. His movie studio resembles the classic system as much as it does the bloated 1980s version he’s critiquing. The Player actually came at a time when independent films were having their heyday, and the Sundance crowd was moving in. I guess these things are cyclical. If the auteurs of the 1960s and 1970s gave birth to the blockbuster, then the indie scene of the 1990s gave us the mega blockbuster. Would there even be a Griffin Mill now, or would he just be a collection of stockholders?

I guess it doesn’t really matter. All we can say for sure is that he’d still be getting away with it. Now more than ever.


Tim Robbins, Sydney Pollack, and Robert Altman on set.


Sunday, July 10, 2016

THE IN-LAWS - #823


From a mathematical standpoint, there are so many movies made every year, and have been for over a century now, it's pretty easy to understand why all cinema fans have holes in their viewing diary. You just can't see everything.

Even so, there are still movies that land in my queue that, when I do see them, I can't understand what took me so long to get around to them. I always knew they were there, so how were they not part of my life? The In-Laws is just such a movie.


Directed by Arthur Hiller, a studio director with credits dating back to early television, with a script by Andrew Bergman (Oh, God! You Devil, Fletch), The In-Laws is a smart and fun action-comedy that melds genres for a quirky story all its own. Imagine Father of the Bride but with guns. Peter Falk and Alan Arkin star as the respective fathers. Falk plays Vince Ricardo, and his son is going to marry the daughter of dentist Sheldon Kornpett (Arkin). The two families have yet to meet, and are doing so just days before the ceremony. Part of the delay is down to Vince's strange work schedule. Though he presents himself as an international businessman, that is not the whole truth. And as The In-Laws gets underway, we aren't entirely sure what to believe about his clandestine life. In the opening scene, he is part of a heist, robbing a Federal Treasury armored car for some engraving plates to make large bills. Once he pulls Sheldon into his current scheme, he will claim to be CIA--though the agency itself may disavow him. (Look for Ed Begley Jr. in a small role as a CIA contact.)


Of course, that's the fun of Bergman's story. We are as confused by these turns of events as Sheldon--though we are also more intrigued by Vince's smooth talking and adaptability. It's not us getting shot at. The two characters operate at opposing trajectories. As Sheldon grows more anxious and unhinged, Vince actually gains confidence. With each setback, he becomes more determined to make it work. Because not only do their lives depend on his plans paying off--there are some crooks who aren't happy about having to wait for their cut of the robbery--but he also has to bring the timid dentist around to his side so he won't call off the wedding. Oh, and the Feds are after them, too.

Falk and Arkin are a real dream team. The script plays to each of their strengths. Falk is loquacious and likable, a little bit of Columbo by way of James Bond. Arkin is all indignation and nerves, pinging between blustery rage and near-catatonic fear. Of course, his arc is that the more that happens, the more capable he proves himself, tapping into reserves he never knew he had. In one action scene, he leaps on top of a car! Shortly after, though, there is a bit of business that shows how clever the character building is here. Facing a firing squad, under the orders of a South American crime lord (played hilariously by Richard Libertini, with a bit of a nod to Señor Wences), we can see who each man is by his choice of blindfold and/or cigarette. (A scene so memorable, Criterion put it on the cover.)


Hiller's deft direction works whether he is aiming for laughs or thrills. The armored car robbery would be at home in a vintage noir, while the shootouts are expertly choreographed to create real danger. But even in those, he can get a good guffaw or two. The "Serpentine!" bit works brilliantly, and with very little set-up and surprisingly, without milking it via needless callbacks further down the line. In modern hands, that would be a catchphrase, but The In-Laws is so fleet of feet, as soon as it has finished with one gag, it's already on to the next. It never lets up, either, right down to the last "gotcha" at the end.

Which would explain why it has become such a perennial. The In-Laws is just pure entertainment through and through, nothing more, nothing less. Best of all, it respects the audience enough to let us go along on the ride rather than merely taking us for one. Why anyone decided to make this years later is beyond me, because this 1979 original is just about perfect.


Monday, June 27, 2016

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA - #822


My capsule review, from a festival appearance in February, 2015, of Clouds of Sils Maria:

Good, but muddled. A tighter grip on the sprawling script could have gone a long way. Such self-reflexiveness requires a rigorous editorial process, and much here is too obvious to fall anywhere but flat. Likewise, the jabs at Hollywood are too smug to qualify as satire.

But Juliette Binoche is sublime, and somehow Kristen Stewart continues to impress with each new role while Chloe Grace-Moretz only becomes less convincing the more she matures. Wouldn't have seen that switcheroo coming.



Sunday, June 26, 2016

LA CHIENNE - #818


Jean Renoir had made nine films before he made his first sound picture, the 1931 comedy On purge bébé (Baby’s Laxative). His second, the more serious La chienne (The Bitch) followed shortly after, released the same year. Both are included on this new Criterion edition of La chienne, and they couldn’t be further apart in content, even if they do show the same confident, inventive storytelling.

In fact, La chienne shows its ambitions from the very start. Unlike many early sound directors, Renoir doesn’t sacrifice camera movement for audio. The narrative is framed as a puppet show, with Renoir referencing the classic tropes of Punch and Judy and the constable caught between them as a set up for his lover’s triangle, before cutting to his second shot, a dish riding up a dumbwaiter, being taken out, and served to a group of accountants out on the town for the evening. Entering as we do through the dumbwaiter, we are practically crawling through the screen. Renoir is serving up his movie, evoking the familiar and luring us in with his tantalizing ingredients.


Those ingredients are a pimp, his girl, and the sad middle-aged man that picks the wrong time to do the right thing. Legendary French actor Michel Simon (L’Atalante [review]; The Two of Us [review]) plays Maurice Legrand, one of the accountants whooping it up for the night. Except he’s not. Legrand is the office joke, a notorious wet blanket, and a henpecked husband. No one takes him seriously, much less his dreams of being a painter. Yet, when he comes across Dédé (Georges Flamant, The 400 Blows [review]) beating on Lulu (Janie Marèse), he steps in and pushes the man off. Lulu chastises him, defending her abuser, but then enlists Legrand’s help further. In this surprising white knight, she’s spotted a predictable sucker.

From there, she stokes Legrand’s desire, getting him to put her up in an apartment and playing the role of his mistress. When his meager allowance and the money he steals from his wife (Magdeleine Bérubet) proves insufficient to support Lulu and Dédé, whom Legrand naturally has no idea is on the payroll, the shady pair resorts to a scheme where they sell Legrand’s paintings, passing Lulu off as the artist.


If the plot sounds a little familiar, it might be because Fritz Lang would remake La chienne several years later as Scarlet Street [review]. While Lang’s version would be invigorated with the salacious tang of film noir, Renoir’s original mined the seedy side of Paris life for a far more interesting dynamic. While his story has the trappings of a good potboiler, it also takes a serious look at abuse, with Flamant playing Dédé as purely selfish and wholly dishonest, building up Lulu only to tear her down through denial and violence. It’s a dark, unromantic portrayal of a pimp, all false swagger and despicable bluster. Juxtaposed with this is Legrand’s own abusive relationship: his wife verbally lays into him every time he goes home. While that subplot will have a more comic outcome, things can only go bad for those tangled up in the main story.


Michel Simon, as ever, is fantastic. In some ways, his performance as Legrand calls to mind Takashi Shimura in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru [review]. Simon shows a similar reserve, pulling back to create an image of a shy, but relatable man who often gets ignored or passed over. That both men in these movies find some comfort with a younger woman is a whole other thing, perhaps to be explored at a later time; here, the more important aspect is how the relationship emboldens the older man to stand up for himself, while also challenging the audience’s judgment of him. On one hand, we want him to be happy, but on the other, we lose faith in Legrand as he lies and steals and lets himself be taken advantage of.

Renoir stages his climactic scene with a touch of irony. When Legrand confronts Lulu, their disagreement is soundtracked by a live band playing in the streets below the window of the love nest he has provided. Their song is a romantic one, even as what happens far above, outside of eye and earshot of the gathered crowd, is anything but. If La chienne were a noir, this would likely be the end of it, but Renoir is curious how everything else will play out, showing us the full extent of the consequences for all involved, down to a short epilogue jumping ahead several years. Noir is about the hard end, there is not much carrying on from the bad decisions everyone makes; Renoir’s view of life is far more generous, and also more sad.


No such sadness creeps into the other feature, On purge bébé, a short comedy (just under an hour) adapted from a play by Georges Feydeau. Michel Simon has a part in this film, as well, playing Chouilloux, a well-connected politician who is the guest of Follavoine (Jacques Louvigny, Hotel du Nord), a porcelain manufacturer intent on convincing Chouilloux to give him the contract to supply the French Army with chamber pots. Uncooperative in this endeavor is Follavoine’s wife Julie (Marguerite Pierry), who is more concerned with their son’s failure to go to the bathroom. Much of the movie is the husband trying to convince his spouse to get dressed for the lunch with Chouilloux, his wife, and her lover, while Julie is trying to convince their son, a.k.a. Baby, to take a laxative. There is also much business with chamber pots and slush buckets, and even some mild slapstick surrounding the mineral oil.

On purge bébé is harmless and silly, if a little uneven in pacing. The humor is overly chatty, and perhaps lost to time and translation. Simon is excellent, though, playing a more genial and bumbling fellow than we have otherwise become accustomed to from him. For more on the relationship between Renoir and Simon, this disc also has a 1967 television documentary featuring the two old friends looking back over their collaborations. It is directed by Jacques Rivette, and rounds out what is an impressive presentation of both films. The restorations of La chienne and On purge bébé are fantastic. Fans of European comics will also appreciate the new cover and interior poster by Blutch, whose graphic novel So Long, Silver Screen is a must for all cinephiles.  


This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

  

Sunday, June 19, 2016

HERE COMES MR. JORDAN - #819


Films about the afterlife and how hapless shmoes interact with divinity seem to have had their heyday in the 1940s, when inventive filmmakers dreamed up new visions of heaven and wrestled with the concept of second chances. Perhaps it was the post-Depression, wartime anxiety at work, launching Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life [review] and Powell and Pressburger’s exquisite A Matter of Life and Death into the zeitgeist. Both were released in 1946, but five years prior Alexander Hall (Let’s Do It Again [review] was leading the way by introducing us all to Mr. Jordan.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan is the story of Joe Pendleton, a random renaissance man played by Robert Montgomery (Lady in the Lake, Ride the Pink Horse). I say random because Joe’s vocational hobbies don’t have much rhyme or reason. A boxer on the way to being the champ, Joe is also a pilot and a saxophone player. It’s because he insists on flying himself to his next match that Joe ends up in a tailspin that shuffles him off to the other side, lucky sax in tow. It’s there that Joe meets Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains, Casablanca, Notorious [review]), a sort of stand-in for Saint Peter and the coordinator for souls flying off to their final destination. Quite literally. In this afterlife, one does not travel to heaven via the stairs, but on an airplane.


Turns out there was a mix-up and Joe was snatched too soon by an over-eager angel (longtime character actor Edward Everett Horton (Design for Living [review], It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad,Mad World). Joe was not meant to die that day, but the angel grabbed him before he could right his plane. More complications result from the fact that Joe’s body was cremated before he could be returned to it, and now the boxer is owed some 50 years of living. Mr. Jordan’s solution is to find him a new body, replacing him for someone else newly deceased. None of the options please Joe, however, he wants someone as fit as he was.

Mr. Jordan eventually plays on the boxer’s sense of right and decency, convincing him to take over for a rich man whose wife and trusted aide have conspired to kill him. By stepping into Farnsworth’s shoes, he can rescue poor Betty (Evelyn Keyes, The Lady in Question [review], Hell’s Half Acre) and her father, whom Farnsworth and his cronies have framed for lost millions. Joe quickly falls for the girl, and tries to change Farnsworth’s image, while also hoping to resume his boxing career, two destinies that are seemingly at odds with one another.


Destiny is an important factor of Here Comes Mr. Jordan. If a man is fated for a certain life, how can he maintain that track when the circumstances change unexpectedly? Even in Farnsworth’s body, Joe knows that he is Joe, though only he--and us--sees himself as Robert Montgomery. No one else can see Mr. Jordan, either, leading to some expected humor about the crazy tycoon talking to himself. Mr. Jordan serves as a bit of a guide, leading Joe to make the right decisions, culminating in a surprising ending that gives the man a little bit of everything, while also giving him peace. Without spoiling too much, imagine a life where you know you are not you. It’s not exactly a fix for the injury done against Joe by cutting short his existence.

Hall’s vision of paradise--which it should be noted was initiated by writer Harry Segall in his play Heaven Can Wait, which Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a loose adaptation of--is rather simple. Smoke on the ground, an empty horizon--though, I suppose that’s actually purgatory, we never go all the way to heaven proper. It’s a calm place, and Jordan himself remains calm throughout, never caught off guard or swayed, a soothing presence meant to ease the anxiety that apparently follows us from life to death. Rains is a perfect choice for the role. His even-handed charm can be as inviting when he’s a good guy as it is unnerving when he’s a bad guy. In fact, in a later film, he would play the flipside of Mr. Jordan, serving as the devil giving Paul Muni another go-around in 1946’s Angel on my Shoulder, this time from an actual Harry Segall screenplay. Claude Rains clearly sees the thin line between good and evil and can perform equally well on either.


The actor’s cool demeanor serves as a nice foil to Robert Montgomery’s chatty palooka. It’s funny, Montgomery is an actor I enjoy, though I never find him convincing. Not in the way Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart can always be themselves and yet also make me believe in their characters; Montgomery always strikes me as someone who is putting it on, rather than getting absorbed in it. It makes no matter here, though, as Joe is all forward energy, and Hall aims for a comic tone that is just a step or two shy of screwball, a perfect spot for Montgomery to operate in.

The movie itself is similar: charming, if sometimes a little threadbare or even rushed, particularly at the end, when the explanation for why Joe suddenly can’t be champ practically contradicts certain exposition that came earlier. There’s a convenience to the new rules that would be off-putting if the finale wasn’t so satisfying. Here Comes Jordan was such a hit that it would later inspire a sequel in 1947’s Down to Earth, replacing Montgomery for Rita Hayworth and Rains for Roland Culver (and with Hall once again behind the camera). Not having seen it, I can’t say if Hall makes as good with his second chance as Joe Pendleton does with his, but then, I guess that’s just another of life’s little mysteries I’ll get to eventually solve before moving over to the next world myself. (No, seriously, what if I literally die after watching it?!)


Note: This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.