Oliver Twist (1948)

May 3, 2009

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It’s difficult to know what to mention first- Lean’s masterfully clear narrative structure or Guinness’s incredible prosthetic nose (what is it about Lean putting Guinness in mad costumes?); Robert Newton’s eyeball-rolling losing-it-rapidly Bill Sykes or Guy Green’s wonderful almost Expressionistic camerawork; the atmospheric opening or the delicious scenery-eating of Francis L. Sullivan- this is a very rich film.  I love the performances, the pace, the storyline and dialogue (though most of the credit there goes Boz, obviously) but most of all I really love the look of the film.  The stark monochrome contrast and wonderfully deep set locations in scenes like Sykes’ rooftop escape or Twist’s flee through the London streets leave an indelible impression on the watcher.  This looks more like the London of Dickens’ novels than any film I’ve seen- it is authentic and haunting.

I don’t want to say too much, I want to surprise myself when I see it again.  Everyone knows the story but this retelling of it is still surprising. Superlative, better even than Lean’s Great Expectations.  10/10.

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Great Expectations (1946)

March 27, 2009

On his fourteenth birthday young Pip (Anthony Wager) informs the reclusive Miss Haversham (a great Martita Hunt cameo) that he can no longer visit her and play as he is now of age to be apprenticed to the blacksmith, his uncle the kinder-than-credible Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles). Six years later, so the first-person narrative tells us, we see young Pip hard at work at the forge.  Young Pip, twenty years old at this point, is played by John Mills; a fine actor no doubt, but clearly middle-aged.  With that in mind it would be impossible for this film to be rated at 10/10 no matter what else happened- the casting of your central character is pretty bloody pivotal to the success of a film and the transition of Pip from a callow country lad to a snobbish city gentleman cannot be portrayed convincingly by a man in his forties no matter how fucking good an actor he is.

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But everything else in the film; every single other aspect is an absolute delight.  From the brooding and atmospheric churchyard opening- all creaking branches, angular trees in silhouette, dark shadows and a tremendously sinister convict on the run (Abel Magwitch played wonderfully by Finlay Currie)- to the closing sequence with Pip returning to the house where so many of the defining moments of his life have been played out (the voices from every corner) and his confrontation with the haunted Estella (Valerie Hobson) there isn’t a pause or a wasted moment. Remarkable.

I love Charles Dickens and I do get really precious about adaptations of his work- perhaps a bit unfairly- because they necessarily chop things from the text and as I love everything in the text I find myself grimacing.  Watchmen fans might have some sympathy with this.  But this adaptation, though it does strip out from the book (not least the Miss Haversham/Compeyson twist) simply feels comprehensive.  So much is included and, to make that possible, it moves at great pace- which I love- and the brilliant minor characters like Mr Wemmick and the Aged P, Herbert Pockett, Uncle Pumblechook, Bentley Drummle and Mr Jaggers all make the most of what little screen time they have.  It isn’t a case of peripheral actors hamming it up and hogging scenes either, Lean simply creates the opportunity for each of them to create a distinctive and interesting role.

Great Expectations also looks great.  I don’t know enough about cinematography to discuss his use of deep focus or back-lighting or all of the other technical things that may make it work, but I do know that it works.  The monochrome is made to work brilliantly, contrasting the gloom of Miss Haversham’s huge house with the bright homeliness that Joe and Pip share with Biddy.  I even loved the soundtrack, the way it enhanced the drama and injected humour in parts (the musical accompaniment to Mrs Joe calling for Pip and Joe to return is hilarious).  The up-tempo music accompanying Pip’s journey to London reflects his excitement and supports the unusually rapid cutting employed at that point to build that atmosphere of immature anticipation.

If only the twenty year old Pip wasn’t played by a man old enough to be his father this would be flawless, it’s still a strong 9/10 though.

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Night and the City (1950)

February 10, 2009

Greed, deception and unrequited love.  What more could you want?  Richard Widmark leads as an American wide-boy trying to get rich quick in post-war London, hustling friends and strangers alike with the promise of “a life of ease and plenty”.   His success in the role is patchy, his manic desperation as the film progresses is of pivotal importance but he doesn’t convey charm anywhere near as well as Machiavellian quick-wittedness.

The speed with which the story moves is amazing considering the depth which is achieved.  The film opens with Harry Fabian (Widmark) running and seems to move at the same relentless pace right through to its climax.  He even says at one point “I’ve been running all of my life”.  It is a very Graham Greene-type story filled with impressive minor characters- Figler the King of the Beggars, Googin the Forger, Anna O’Leary and Molly the Flower Lady- and teems with anger and frustration (expressed in every Widmark moment) and a resignation that the underworld will proceed with little obstruction by the force of law.  There is no-one in the film to root for, they’re all bad.  Even the non-criminal characters, Mary and Adam (Gene Tierney and Hugh Marlowe) are sappy and unappealing.  At least the hoods have a spark of life in them!

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The film, by Jules Dassin- a personal favourite of mine, features a number of memorable scenes including a tremendously realised wrestle between Gregorius the Great (Stanislaus Zbyszko) and The Strangler (Mike Mazurki), a wonderful sequence from the rear of an open-topped car as one of Kristo’s hoods spreads a message to street dwellers and the final chase through the dimly lit and foggy backstreets of London is perfect noir.  The narrative is clear but never condescending and the mood is consistent throughout with great performances and really well designed and exeuted shots.

In the supporting roles, Herbert Lom (brooding magnificently as Kristos) and Francis L. Sullivan (Mr Jaggers from David Lean’s wonderful Great Expectations) are crucial as counterpoints to Widmark.  His unchannelled ambition and enthusiastic self-promotion are contrasted nicely by the men who he wants to rival, intimidating and ruthless with the quiet confidence of men with power they show Fabian up for the callow chancer that he is.  That Sullivan’s character (the bizarrely named Nosseross) is also in a loveless marriage of convenience that he desperately wants to transform into a real love affair simply adds further depth to his performance.

Unrequited love and the exploitation of it is another theme which Dassin depicts in all it’s sordidness.  Nosseross, as I’ve said, loves his wife- though he does describe her at one point as “bought and paid for”- and she exploits this with no kind feelings.  When she leaves him he says to himself “No, Helen, you’ll come back. And I’ll want to take you back”.  Fabian exploits Mary’s love for him and even she in turn doesn’t share the feelings that Adam has for her.  This is an uncompromising and bleakly cynical film full of unsympathetic characters without scruple or conscience.  A great uncovering of a very real underworld culture.

The bleakness inherent in this film- and perhaps all great noirs- is beautifully expressed in its expressionistic use of dramatic monochrome staging.  A tremendous picture- 8/10.

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