Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

Bell, Book and Candle (1958) movie poster

director  Richard Quine
viewed: 11/25/2017

A cool, comic analog to Alfred Hitchcock’s VertigoBell, Book and Candle is a another darkened romance starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak from the very same year. It’s also a story of obsession and possession, of love’s darker recesses.

In some ways, the shoe is on the other foot, with Novak the enchantress and Stewart the possessed. In other lights, perhaps it’s just as bleak for Novak, though it ends with a more traditional “happy” ending if you don’t read between the lines.

As a comedy, maybe it’s not quite hilarious, though it’s urbane. And maybe its darker soul keeps it from being quite the lark it aspires to.

The cast is sublime, featuring the adorable Elsa Lancaster, Hermione Gingold, Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs. And Pyewacket the cat, “as himself”, though possibly played by up to 12 different felines. And lets not forget The Zodiac Club, a beatnik-witching haven.

Bell, Book and Candle is said to have inspired TV’s Bewitched, which makes sense. It is, after all, the story of a lovely young witch who pines for something more than her magical life. The built-in metaphor of the female having to sublimate all of her inherent skills and character, wit, and abilities in order to succeed in human society is both a critique of patriarchy as well as ceding to patriarchy (for the happy ending).

It’s probably not quite as magical a film as it strives to be, but it’s totally enjoyable, charming, and packed with texts and subtexts, as well as cool character. I did find myself thinking that Billy Wilder could have probably elevated this further, but it’s perfectly fun on its own.

My 13 year old daughter was nonplussed, however.

Seconds (1966)

Seconds (1966) movie poster

director John Frankenheimer
viewed: 11/11/2016

I think it was the first time that I saw Seconds that I became aware of James Wong Howe.  I don’t know how much I had known about him, if his name was familiar, but after seeing his stunning camerawork in this trippy black-and-white nightmare par excellence, Howe became one of the earliest Hollywood cinematographers that I knew by name.

Like John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seconds is a black-and-white freak-out on paranoia of great prescience.  Where the earlier film captured the political Cold War in extremis, Seconds delves into identity and aging, a mid-life crisis in extremis with a glance at hedonistic lifestyles of the young and coming hippies.

And it’s terrifying.  And occasionally blackly funny.

Whatever the readings the film had in its day or perhaps were intended in its day, it’s hard not to keen in on Rock Hudson, well known as living the double life of a closeted gay movie star, how well known at the time I am not sure.  His playing the role of someone who is secretly someone else, who is repressing himself while trying to live the new life with his new hunky body and good looks, unencumbered by an aging wife and family, adds deeper consideration metatextually for those who know these facts.

I intentionally didn’t tell my son this information when we watched Seconds.  Mainly because he might write a paper on it for school and his teacher didn’t want him to do any research on the films he would write about.  Also, in part, because he’s able to watch the film without this metatextual information, so has the ability to see it differently.

But James Wong Howe’s cinematography is amazing.  The drunken over-the-shoulder camera shots are the ones that stood out the most in my mind, but there are such a number of approaches throughout the film to create different effects and varying states of nightmare and entrapment.  It’s an utter masterwork of cinematography.

The Thin Man (1934)

The Thin Man (1934) movie poster

director W. S. Van Dyke
viewed: 12/30/2014 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The definition of urbane, witty 1930’s comedy, W.S. Van Dyke’s adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man starring William Powell and Myrna Loy is pretty much the cat’s pajamas.  So popular that it spawned five sequels over 13 years, it’s also one of the drinkingest movies out there.

Released only four months after Hammett’s novel came out, it’s hard not to think of it as the definitive version.  True to the novel or not (I can’t say — it’s been some time since I’ve read it), it’s a wonderful incarnation itself.  The hard drinking Nick and Nora Charles and their wire-haired fox terrier Asta are comic and charming and so utterly of their time.  The murder mystery is almost the film’s MacGuffin.

I’ve only ever seen this, the first of the films, but I don’t know why.  I’ve heard the others are nearly if not exactly as entertaining.  Powell and Loy are so splendid.  And funny.

With cinematography by James Wong Howe to boot.  Beat that.  You can’t.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Sweet Smell of Success (1957) movie poster

director Alexander Mackendrick
viewed: 02/02/2014

Another one of those “great” movies of all time that I’d never seen and been meaning to see.  This movie has it all: great writing (Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman), great performances (Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis), amazing cinematography (James Wong Howe), and excellent direction from Alexander Mackendrick.

It’s a bullish film noir about the heightened powers of a New York newspaper columnist, modeled after Walter Winchell, and nailed by Lancaster, and his would-be protege, a sleazy press agent played by Curtis.  Shot on the streets of New York City, it’s all glistening brick and pavement, illuminated by fractals of neon signs.   The dialog is prime and delivered with perfection.

What’s really kind of interesting about this movie is how much of a time capsule the subject matter is.  This came in the mid-1950’s where New York still had several daily newspapers and the power of columnists and newspapermen were perhaps at their height.  This power was by nature a bit more regionalized, though Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker takes to television and radio for syndicated opinions to spew out to the rest of America.  Trying to find an analog today is kind of hard, perhaps a talking head pundit on cable news?  Other demagogues that run syndicated talk or television?  While there is far more reach today, there are far more players as well, and no figure I can conceive matches Hunsecker.

He’s an egomaniac, who wants to control his sister’s life is some strangely incestuous way.  And maybe Sidney Falco (Curtis) can see how corrupt and immoral this whole biz is, but when the lure of that same power in his own possession is offered, he proves ready to burn anyone.

I don’t know what else to say.  Great movie.

Mantrap (1926)

Mantrap (1926) movie poster

director Victor Fleming
viewed: 07/13/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

My favorite of the five films that I saw at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this year was Victor Fleming’s Mantrap.  Adapted from a novel by Sinclair Lewis, the film is a comedy of the sexes starring the wonderful, amazing Clara Bow at the top of her “It girl”, “Perfect Flapper” heights.

There are many other charms of this 86 minute film, which features James Wong Howe’s typically vibrant cinematography.  But this film belongs to Bow.  Noted in the film’s introduction from clips of the time, Variety stated “Clara Bow just walks away with the picture from the moment she walks into camera range.” And per Photoplay “When she is on the screen nothing else matters. When she is off, the same is true.”  True then, true today.

Mantrap of the five films I saw was by far the most modern of the films.  From the opening shot of a female client’s foot scaling her attorney’s (Percy Marmont), the play and verve of the film feels more like a whip-quick 1930’s screwball comedy, sharper, more clever, and pointed.  Bow herself is a sex bomb of her time.  When she leaps into the lap of her backwoods sugar daddy, Ernest Torrence, she’s more woman than any of the men in the picture could handle, all in the young, tiny, self-sufficient package.  Fleming gets a lot from the character actors who make up most of the background of the film, the hilarious inhabitants of Mantrap, Canada.

What can I say about Clara Bow that hasn’t been said before?  All I really need to say is that Mantrap is top fun and that if you haven’t seen it, you really, truly should.