Saturday, August 31, 2019


People who live to themselves -- are generally left to themselves.”

What a splendid little film Craig’s Wife is. The 1936 film from Dorothy Arzner is a bit of Trojan Horse, parading as a domestic drama, but smuggling elements of a paranoid thriller.

The Craigs are a wealthy married couple living a seemingly normal upper-middle-class life. Walter Craig (John Boles, Stella Dallas) loves Harriet (Rosalind Russell, Gypsy [review], The Women)--but by some accounts, too much. He is blind to her true nature. And it’s not really like she hides it. The maids are nervous around her, lest an inexact dusting cause wrath; Walter’s aunt (Alma Kruger, His Girl Friday [review]) only lives with them so she can keep an eye on things; and when Harriet and her niece, Ethel (Dorothy Wilson, The Milky Way), are on the train back from visiting Ethel’s dying mother, not only does Harriet lie about the woman’s health, but basically lays out her mercenary philosophy. Walter was a step up for her, a chance for independence and a place in society. All she has to do now is wait for him to pass on. That’s why she’s so exact about the house: it’s her future.

Harriet is a bit of a snake in the grass, but she’s a snake who’s in charge of the landscaping. The façade of her life with Walter, one created largely for him, is one she orchestrates entirely. In her mind, people are a means to an end, and any excess number of them should be trimmed. This, of course, means she also trusts no one. Not Ethel’s fiancé, whom she secretly seeks to isolate, and certainly not her husband, whom she thinks is being hit on by everything in a skirt--including the aging widow next door (Billie Burke, The Wizard of Oz). When her snooping causes her to discover Walter might actually be a suspect in a double death, Harriet pulls everything in closer. Never mind the portentous nature of the truth, which might signal to her that these next two days will be her downfall, with everything and everyone converging against her. Walter wasn’t involved, he couldn’t be. The tragedy was a murder/suicide perpetrated by a husband on his cheating wife
Described as it is above, Craig’s Wife has all the ingredients of a cheap B-movie or even a television soap opera, but as Arzner presents it, it is neither of these things. It’s an animal unto itself, a tad similar to trapped women pictures like Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door [review] or Douglas Sirk’s Sleep, My Love [review], but with the roles reversed. The woman traps herself. If this were Rebecca [review], Harriet would be her own Mrs. Danvers. In terms of drama, Arzner leans away from suspicious shadows and jump scares. There isn’t even a hint of danger or violence. Human emotion is enough. Like a Eugene O’Neill play, their conversations are their own undoing.

Rosalind Russell by far runs away with this picture. Her performance is as flawless and calculated as Harriet aspires to be. She can snap from rigid to tender in a second, and had we not seen her reveal her true colors in other scenes, we’d certainly fall for her routine. Like any villain, you have to like her, at least a little bit, and Craig’s Wife leaves enough room for sympathy so that in the end, you can ‘t help but feel happy for her when she gets exactly what she wished for, and sorry for her in that it’s exactly what she deserved.

Sunday, August 18, 2019


This review was originally written for in 2014.

The 1931 drama The Miracle Woman is the kind of movie that few folks besides Frank Capra could pull off. It's a film that manages to simultaneously be a sincere portrayal of faith while maintaining a healthy skepticism in regards to human nature. While other directors might find a hard time striking a balance between these two themes, their own personal interests or agenda causing them to lean heavily one way or the other, Capra deftly works between them without ever seeming like he's pushing a message.

Barbara Stanwyck stars in The Miracle Woman as Florence Fallon, the daughter of a preacher who is being run out of his church by the congregation he devoted his life to because they prefer a younger, flashier style of clergy. When the old man dies the day he is meant to give his final sermon, Florence delivers a blistering lecture instead. Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy, King Kong), a con man passing through town, happens to catch the performance. Impressed by Florence's guts and her knowledge of the Bible, he takes advantage of her lost belief to convince her to join him in running a fake revival scam. Florence soon becomes a popular traveling preacher who reaches a huge audience by broadcasting moral lessons on the radio.

One person who hears her message is an aviator who was blinded while serving his country. John (David Manners, Dracula) is about to throw himself out the window and commit suicide when Florence's voice calls him back from the ledge. He goes to one of her revival meetings, a circus-like spectacle that even includes live lions on stage, and ends up meeting Florence by volunteering to join her in the lion's den. A friendship develops, and then romance, as John's natural goodness reminds Florence that she once believed in providence, too. The only thing standing between them being together is Bob, who isn't keen on seeing his meal ticket run off and get married. It's one thing for Florence to make others believe in her message, but a whole other thing if she starts believing it herself.

The script for The Miracle Woman is by Jo Swerling (The Pride of the Yankees [review], Lifeboat [review]), working from a play by John Meehan and Robert Riskin. It's nicely paced, cutting time between the exaggerated world of Florence's operation, including swinging backstage parties run by Bob, and the isolated quiet of John's apartment. The relationship between John and Florence progresses naturally, with the blind man offering her a respite from her troubles. Stanwyck does quite a job here, managing to keep the bluster of her performances and her diva-like attitude off-stage from overshadowing the more honest emotions of Florence's true character.

The big finish that brings down Florence's invented church plays just as well as the angry sermon she delivers at the start in the very real one, and though the film's closing scene is a bit sappy, Capra otherwise maintains the earnestness of the narrative without ever straining. The Miracle Woman both shows respect for true believers and pity for how their beliefs can sometimes be taken advantage of. Hardy's onscreen villain may be a bully and a brute, but the real evil in Capra's tale is how people seeking answers and solace often end up juked by the very system they've gone to for help.


This review was originally written for in 2013.

An early effort from director Frank Capra, Ladies of Leisure was adapted by Capra and Jo Swerling in 1930 from a popular play. Barbara Stanwyck leads a fine cast, including comedic supporting actors Lowell Sherman and Marie Provost, playing a prissy playboy and a sassy gal pal, respectively.

Stanwyck stars as Kay Arnold, a professional party girl who is rescued from a bad night by amateur party pooper Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves). Jerry is the son of a wealthy railroad man who is trying to buck the family business and become a painter. He hires Kay to be his model with the goal of capturing the hopeful look he saw on her face the night he picked her up. For Kay, this is a stroke of good luck, as steady employment will keep her out of trouble, but the streetwise gal has a hard time replicating the naive optimism Jerry is looking for. Plus, she feels increasingly hopeless as she begins to fall for the artist. He's already engaged to a woman more fitting his social standing.

A pre-code picture, Ladies of Leisure tackles some fairly scandalous subjects. Kay's initial career is basically being a paid escort, though the script frames both her and her roommate Dot (Prevost) as modern independents looking to get by on their own. One of the more fascinating scenes comes mid-movie when, hoping to catch Jerry's attention, Kay attempts to prove she's capable of more domestic duties, donning an apron to fry some eggs and play the wife. His failure to notice her efforts is heartbreaking. The actress was an expert at playing women with moxy whose gumption often masked true vulnerability. Kay is basically an early version of the grifter Stanwyck later portrayed in The Lady Eve [review], though without Preston Sturges' whip-smart writing.

Ladies of Leisure is an imperfect affair. Pacing is a big problem. Long chunks of the movie are dragged down by an awkward stiffness. Capra's direction seems stuck somewhere between the traditional stage and silent pictures, he hasn't yet mastered the art of the talkies. Luckily, there is plenty of comic relief from Prevost and Sherman that gooses proceedings back to life. There are also some surprisingly dark twists in the final act, when Kay is convinced that she really is bad for Jerry and makes increasingly drastic choices to free him from her and then liberate herself from her own bad decisions. There is an excellent tension building to the finale, even if the very end feels tacked on rather than organic.

Saturday, August 17, 2019


Dorothy Arzner was a pioneer. She was one the only female film directors in the Pre-code era, having already survived the transition from silents to sound, amassing a solid resume that featured both comedy and drama, ultimately leading to her being the first woman in the Director's Guild of America. Her 1933 picture, Christopher Strong, is definitely in the latter category. It’s a dual romance: a middle-aged husband steps out on his wife at the same time his coming-of-age daughter is learning her first lessons of the heart while pursuing a married man.

And it starred another pioneering woman of cinema. Christopher Strong is only Katharine Hepburn’s second film, the actress may not snag the title--Strong is her lover, not her character--but it’s still her show. Hepburn stars as Lady Cynthia Darrington, an independent aristocrat with a yen for adventure. Cynthia is a pilot whose exploits earn headlines, as she wins races and breaks records. She comes into the orbit of the Strongs by accident--literally. She runs Harry (Ralph Forbes, The Barretts of Wimpole Street), the lover of young Monica Strong (Helen Chandler, Dracula), off the road with her car. He is out looking for an impossible treasure for a scavenger hunt: a woman over 21 who has never had a love affair. Cynthia fits the bill.

At the same time, Monica is rushing across town to grab her father, who is the other prize of the night. Sir Christopher (Colin Clive, Frankenstein) represents a man who has been married more than five years who has never cheated on his wife. Amused by their mutual exploitation, Christopher and Cynthia immediately hit it off. Cynthia also befriends Monica and becomes a bit of a mentor. It’s all seemingly innocent enough. Only Lady Strong (Billie Burke, The Wizard of Oz) sees what’s really going on.

Naturally, Cynthia and Christopher fall for each other. Their growing attraction runs parallel to the Strongs discouraging Monica from dating Harry--one romance goes up, the other is encouraged to go down. It’s only as Sir Christopher indulges his passion for this other woman that he comes to understand his daughter’s emotional turmoil, finally relenting to Monica’s wishes when Harry himself gets a divorce. Ironically, though, once Monica discovers what is going on, she does not approve of her father and her friend making a fool of her mother. The girl’s judgment raises questions of which affair is more hurtful, and forces Cynthia to make a decision.

Hepburn is a vision here. Young and dreamy, and every bit the icon we know today. Decked out in chic pantsuits and exuding an alluring confidence, this feels very much like the performance upon which Cate Blanchett based her Oscar-winning portrayal in The Aviator. Katharine Hepburn already has a natural command of the screen, and her revelations of Cynthia’s vulnerability feel less like a dismantling of the character’s defenses and more of an organic relaxation--falling in love is the one bold adventure she has yet to embark on.

Since Christopher Strong came several years before the Hayes Code, Arzner does little to gloss over or obfuscate the full extent of the scandal that drives the film into its final act. The melodrama is heavy, even if the execution is not. Though the script is sometimes clumsy, the emotion is real. Surprisingly enough, the most effective scene is the one where Arzner and writer Zoe Akins (How to Marry a Millionaire) pull back the most. It’s a two-hander with Hepburn and Burke, where Cynthia must face the woman she’s deceiving but who doesn’t know she’s being deceived. Burke is so understated and yet so knowing in her own way, it’s the only scene that Hepburn has stolen.

Though the controversial plot of Christopher Strong is certainly tame by today’s standards, the authenticity of the heartache means it’s still relatable. People hurt the same, regardless of the era. It’s also kind of refreshing to watch a film that values the romance over the sex. Christopher Strong would never be made now without a few steamy scenes between both couples; hardly anyone has the confidence to play sex and violence offscreen anymore. Granted, Christopher Strong also feels a little slow, it’s at times dialed back too much, but for fans of good drama--not to mention students of early cinema--it still has plenty to offer.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

KLUTE - #987

How well do you know yourself?

It’s a question that a pretentious agent poses to Bree Daniel, the would-be actress and call girl played by Jane Fonda, midway through 1971’s Klute. It’s attached to a muddled metaphysical philosophy about performance, and we are clearly meant to dismiss the guy as a charlatan, but this jerk has inadvertently asked the most important question in Bree’s life--and in the movie. Bree’s quest for self, and her denial of the same, is central to Klute, a sometimes thriller that ultimately ends up being about character and, in its own odd way, a modern romance.

The set-up is pretty much a classic crime scenario: a rich businessman from Pennsylvania has gone missing, with the only suspicious clue being dirty letters he wrote to a prostitute in New York. When the police investigation goes stale, the family and the man’s company send John Klute (Donald Sutherland, Don’t Look Now [review]) to follow up. Klute begins with the girl, Bree, who honestly doesn’t remember the missing man. Her best guess is someone who beat her up two years prior, but she doesn’t have his name or contact. Klute pushes Bree to take him through her contacts to try to trace her steps back to that violent john. Along the way, the pair develops a strange relationship, entering a game of manipulation, sex, and trust--all three most often wrapped up together.

John Klute is a bit of an enigma; ironically, he is the more confident yet also the more buttoned-up of the two. Sutherland plays him as alert, but distant, always watching but with his head up and his leaning back so he’s looking down. The film, which was directed by Alan J. Pakula (All The President’s Men; Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing [review]), practically invites the audience to not like John Klute. He seems like a hypocrite, always judging, yet quietly indulging his own kink. He’s a voyeur who wants to follow in his quarry’s footsteps.

No, the film may be named after Klute, but it really belongs to Bree. We follow her in her private life as an added observer. Bree is watched by us, Klute, the unseen villain, and just about every man in every room she walks in. Fonda is fierce and complex, moving naturally through the character’s contradictions. Though Bree is trying to step away from being a call girl to focus on acting and modeling--a life we are shown to be even more degrading via a few nicely done scenes--in her mind, hooking allows her to maintain a semblance of control. This is, of course, a self-delusion that Klute will break down. The more we see of what Bree has been getting away from, including her oily pimp (Roy Scheider, All That Jazz [review]), the more we respect the façade she has built for herself. Klute’s forcing her to take a tour through her past does less to find the disappeared businessman and more to uncover Bree’s foundations.

Setting is used for psychological effect in Klute. New York is a big city, but Pakula makes it feel cramped. People live in small spaces, overcrowded by stuff; bigger rooms, like nightclubs and brothels, are packed with people. Where there is not people, there is stuff; where there is not stuff, there is people. This ties in to John Klute’s distaste for the city, something Bree often pokes fun at. He’s a country boy--albeit from a wealthy countryside, not exactly a hayseed. By contrast, the office of Klute’s boss, Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi), is sparse and clean, like a minimalist James Bond villain. Metal, glass, and shiny surfaces but with none of the bombast. There’s no hiding in there, even if the place is full of secrets.

Yet, there is hiding in the city--which is what Bree is doing. She isolates herself, letting her private life be private, showing each paying client a different personality. It’s no wonder she’s maybe gotten a little lost or forgotten herself. Pakula and his writers, Andy and David E. Lewis, grant us access to all aspects of Bree’s life, including her therapy sessions, where she puts up a good fight only to willingly spill her guts. Again, there is an irony here to how much we get to know and how little the detective actually figures out. He is cerebral whereas Bree is better rounded, more emotional, but her stock in trade is playing those emotions smart. It’s only when the deadly plot she finds herself mixed up in forces her to really look in the mirror that things fall apart. Luckily for her, this is a movie, so even if the ending isn’t entirely happy, we can at least imagine her putting those pieces back together.

Klute’s central mystery takes a backseat to all of this. The character work is clearly what Pakula is more interested in, and what he’s good at. Though Klute does get a climax where the true culprit emerges and threatens Bree’s life, it’s really just a means to an end, the last act to push Bree out of her comfort zone and embrace what’s next. The violence itself is handled clumsily, to the point I had to rewind to make sure I hadn’t missed something. It almost appears like Pakula shot something more elaborate, lost the footage, and had to cobble together something with what he had. It’s not enough to derail the movie, because by that point you probably don’t care what happened to ol’ what’shisname anyway. It’s the girl we’re after, and the girl who wins the day.

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

Sunday, August 11, 2019


It’s funny to watch the 1967 taped introduction to The Baker’s Wife, in which writer/director Marcel Pagnol explains that the 1938 film was practically an accident. Written in haste to fill some time that had become available at his studio, in an effort to keep the place running and the staff employed, it blossomed from a makeshift short feature to a near-perfect full length. It’s hilarious and charming and a rather sharp document of human nature.

The great Raimu plays Aimable Castagnier, a baker who has moved to a small town. It’s his first day of his shop being open, and the locals discover that Aimable lives up to his name (“Amiable,” in English). He’s chatty, generous, and damn good at his job. He also has a gorgeous wife, a fact that just about everyone but the priest comments on. Aurelie (Ginette Leclerc) is indeed lovely, though also an enigma--at least to her husband. The woman does her job perfunctorily, without speaking, alternately appearing snooty and bored. As time rolls on, we’ll get a better sense that it’s the latter. Amiable consistently insists that she is not a sexual woman, not prone to base urges.

Is it any wonder then, that when the handsome shepherd (Charles Moulin) looks her way, she quickly jumps into his arms, hatching a plan to run away that very morning. (As if giving flesh to her moral choice here, she is weighing a basket of bread in order to get the count right for the shepherd’s delivery; balancing her current life in opposition to her next one.) This sudden departure leaves Aurelie’s chores undone, the most important of which is to wake Amiable when it’s time to take the first batch of bread from the oven. The bewildered husband wakes to a bakery full of smoke and a head full of confusion. As the townspeople realize what is going on, they see that the baker’s spiraling depression means they will go hungry unless they figure out how to get him his wife back.

Raimu is a marvelous actor and Amiable is an equally marvelous character. He is likable and sympathetic, but also foolish and at times pathetic. Being much older than his wife, he lives in tribute to her, but also in denial of his own reality. That latter state has a strong hold on him, as he searches for any reason to explain where she has gone, anything other than her having jilted him for a field worker. Even as the mayor (Charpin), the priest (Robert Vattier), and Amiable’s most understanding friend (Charles Blavette) try to steer him in the right direction, he holds strong: Aurelie has not run away, she’s gone to visit her mother. The husband’s façade only starts to crack as the tee-totaler indulges in a bottle of Pernod--an absinthe-like, licorice-flavored drink that has to be cut with water--and gets absolutely soused. Raimu is easily one of the best onscreen drunkards. He convincingly stumbles over his feet and his words, changing moods on a dime, and singing in bastardized Italian, besting Adam Sandler’s Opera Man act by about 50 years or so. It’s here where you’ll fully commit to Amiable’s side, not matter how delusional he may seem or the foibles that got him to this place. He’s 100% vulnerable, letting it all show.

While it’s definitely Raimu’s show, The Baker’s Wife is rounded out by an impressive cast of characters, populated by the filmmaker’s regular acting troupe. Pagnol loves to depict provincial life, and his scandalous set-up allows for each individual personality to show themselves, both in how they interact with one another and how they react to the moment. For instance, the mayor is a libertine who lives with four women, his “nieces,” yet he is a friend to the priest, who alternately counsels the sinner and turns a blind eye. There is an aged spinster (Maximilienne Max) who still insists on her good looks, but who runs screaming the moment a man pays her attention. The wives cluck their tongues at the harlot, the husbands gently rib their jilted cohort, and yet everyone rallies around when it’s required. Work and community are the two important things in this town, and when the former is disrupted, the latter has to do something about it. This can make strange bedfellows. The populace is quickly shown to be up in each other’s business from the get-go, but feuds are quickly mended when it means hungry bellies. There is also the incredible image of the village schoolteacher (Robert Bassac) working with the priest, literally carrying him across a muddy river--intellect supporting faith--when earlier they had argued the validity of Joan of Arc’s “voices.” There is room for all!

The Baker’s Wife is effortless entertainment. The story construction is tuned with a flawless precision, where all the pieces matter, yet without any one piece being so obvious it spoils or makes apparent its own later importance. Amiable’s missing cat or his zinging the addled fisherman Maillefer (Edouard Delmont) when in his cups may not seem important in the moment, but everything happens for a reason, and all those reasons pay off. Often with laughs, but also with empathy.

But the really big payoff is how much you’ll have your faith in human nature restored. Marcel Pagnol loves the species’ inherent contradictions, how we can be both selfish and selfless in the same breath, and shows how that is okay. Remember what it was like when we could all agree to disagree and move on? Likewise, kindness is not weakness, and buried feelings can come out even stronger for indulging one’s own good nature. The final scenes of The Baker’s Wife show Amiable at his best, while intimating his worst, and once again, you’re on his side, thinking, “Good for him.” Because regardless of everything else, the man never betrays his true nature. Even when it hurts him. Because if you listen to what he says about Aurelie, you realize that the guy isn’t really giving his wife her due. It’s likely from insecurity that he has allowed his marriage to become sexless--though, her agency may be in fostering this belief--but you can’t help but think he kind of drove her into the other man’s arms by denying her vitality.

Thus, kudos also to Leclerc for delivering in the moment, though I suppose it may be up to interpretation exactly why she is’s tough to make tears ambiguous, but she really does.

The 2016 restoration of The Baker’s Wife is impeccable, making the feature look brand new, and it shines here on Blu-ray. Extras on the disc aren’t big in number but notable for their quality, including a 1966 interview with Pagnol and a 1970s-era tour of the town where the move took place.

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

Thursday, August 1, 2019


A self-important magazine editor from New York climbs a mountain with a no-nonsense ski instructor and comes back down with a wife.

This is the meet-cute of Two-Faced Woman, a 1941 romantic comedy from director George Cukor. It sounds harmless enough--and truth be told, it is--but it’s also the film that ended Greta Garbo’s career. So maligned was the picture upon release, the screen legend left Hollywood for good.

Garbo plays Karin, the aforementioned ski instructor, a lover of the land more at home in the freezing temperatures than anywhere else. She’s an improbable match for Melvyn Douglas’ Larry, whose dry wit sits atop his dandyism in a way that can be charming sometimes, but is a little gruff here. This is the third time the pair starred together, so it’s a wonder that the chemistry between them takes a while to mix in Two-Faced Woman. It’s the film’s #1 problem. Perhaps the coupling would not seem so improbable had Cukor and his three writers not decided to leave most of the courtship off screen. The would-be lovers meet, bicker, and then after some slapstick, Larry falls into a snow bank. Cut from a concerned Karin to a more concerned ski lodge where panic has set in over their disappearance. Even Larry’s business partner (Roland Young) and secretary (Ruth Gordon) have come looking for him. When the “lost” skiers finally do re-emerge, they reveal little about where they have been, but wherever it was, they fell in love and got married.

Problems ensue almost immediately. Larry’s initial promises to change his life and stay with Karin are quickly overtaken by his workaholic tendencies, and Karin refuses to go to the city with him. Larry leaves anyway, months pass, and fed up with his constant excuses for not returning, Karin goes to him. The surprise she has planned for her husband is trumped by the surprise she receives, however; it appears her man has taken back up with his former flame, playwright Griselda Vaughn (Constance Bennett). Humiliated but not beaten, Karin decides to impersonate her own twin sister so she can spy on Larry and potentially lure him into a trap. Is it possible he’ll love the bawdy sibling more than the down-to-earth gal he married?

Here is where the title Two-Faced Woman apparently comes in, though it’s a bit misleading. The negative connotations of being “two-faced” would actually probably apply to Larry more than Karin--he’s the cheater, after all! It’s of little consequence, I suppose, and easy to overlook, since this is the point in the picture where the story really starts to take off. In this invented persona, Garbo cuts loose, and the stakes start to matter. Two-Faced Woman’s best scenes come when Larry and Karin are finally alone, each playing the other for a fool, but the mutual seduction actually working rather than just being a petty ruse. Cukor plays with reversals here, bringing each lover to the brink of temptation, only to have them hold back, to tease, each one not yet ready to give up the game.

It’s an exquisite bout, a drunken tug-of-war, with Douglas and Garbo at their most charismatic. They both play very good boozehounds. Things only get sillier and more fun as the back-and-forth escalates, with the pair racing back to the ski resort, each determined to reveal the truth first. It’s too bad the script lets us down once again, returning to slapstick rather than finding a more meaningful ending. I get that Larry tumbling down a mountain brings them back to a place where they initially fell in love, but since we didn’t get much of a glimpse of that love the first time, it comes off as meaningless the second.

MVP honors go to the exquisite supporting cast. Fans of Harold and Maude [review] will likely enjoy seeing young Ruth Gordon give it her all as the fastidious Miss Ellis. But the whole of Two-Faced Woman is stolen by Constance Bennett, whose smart, sharp-tongued Griselda cuts through every scene, taking scissors to the film’s would-be heart strings. Bennett’s performance is a scream--sometimes literally. Griselda’s penchant for letting out a high-pitched cry when her stress and anger reach a boiling point, sometimes filling the space between words, at others pure punctuation, is Two-Faced Woman’s top gag.

Which isn’t all that abnormal, for a supporting player to upstage the main stars. It’s just too bad here because one would have hoped for better from Garbo’s final bow. In the early scenes, she seems as baffled by the script as the rest of us, and her performance suffers for it. Two-Faced Woman should have reminded audiences why they fell in love with her in the first place instead of being slightly relieved the relationship is over.