Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

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Agatha Christie (1890–1976)

As a British national treasure, this 1920s short story/play eventually became a Billy Wilder film in 1957. Ben Lawrence’s July 2015 article published in The Telegraph  is helpful for those who know little about Agatha Christie‘s sleuths such as the married couple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Why is Dame Christie the most translated, the third most published author–behind Shakespeare and the Bible–and whose 1952 play, The Mouse Trap, still shows in London at ST. MARTINS THEATER? She was able to hit a nerve for supplying intelligent stories, suspenseful plots and comedic characters without offense. She is an icon of the modern detective story. All things that are yummy and cheeky and beautifully expressed by the English language are represented in her stories. In short, her 65 detective novels provided entertainment and influenced multiple generations in the 20th century. For me, her work functions as a perfect insight to 20th century culture, like ethics, gender norms, and how a dominant culture dealt with limited technology.

Is she prosaic and dated today? Oh, I suppose so, if you compare her stories with today’s obsession for shocking realism, technological “advances”, and our androgynous world. Agatha Christie is still classy in my book. Will younger readers and lovers of a good mystery story appreciate her?  Shakespeare and the Bible are still read, so why not Agatha Christie?  I suggest a modern biopic to boost awareness of this marvelous woman. Has anyone heard anything about director Will Gluck’s action/drama, Agatha

Witness for the Prosecution (1957) 

This post is for my friend Rob at MOVIE ROB who is featuring the theme of courtroom dramas in film. I chose this Billy Wilder drama starring Tyrone Power in his last role, Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Laughton because I hadn’t seen it before. Thanks, Rob, for giving me the excuse to explore this provocative film.

Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) is accused of murdering an older woman after she bequeaths a large sum of money to him. Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) is the curmudgeon barrister who agrees to defend him. Enter his wife, Christine, who is the core of the film–is she an ally or foe? The film progresses at a steady pace as the mystery unfolds. It’s the ending where all the shocks and significant twists come into play. If you like surprise endings, the film is worth following. Adapted and written by Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz, the sharp dialogue and witticisms highlight Wilder’s talent.

Charles Laughton (Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Elsa Lanchester (The Bride of Frankenstein) as his nagging nurse are the comic relief and show the human side of “the fox” Sir Wilfrid. His antics to smoke and drink while ignoring his doctor’s orders is a charming balance to the austere Christine; one would expect her to help her husband, but she decides to be a witness for the prosecution. She is a callous, manipulating she-cat. Or is she? Marlene is perfect in the role. 9/10 

     Miss Plimsoll: Is there too much of a draft? Should I roll up the window?

     Sir Wilfrid: Just roll up your mouth, you talk too much. If I had known how much you talk I’d never have come out of my        coma. 

I don’t dare reveal spoilers, so I will share some fun trivia from IMDb:

Did you know that Laughton and Lanchester were real-life husband and wife?

In order to show just one of Marlene Dietrich’s famous legs, an entire scene was written that required 145 extras, 38 stunt men and $90,000.

Orson Welles helped Marlene Dietrich create a fake nose and scar for her Cockney disguise.

Alfred Hitchcock said “Many times, people have told me how much they enjoyed Witness for the Prosecution. They thought it was my film instead of Billy Wilder’s. And Wilder told me people asked him about The Paradine Case (1947), thinking he had done it.”

When the film was released, Agatha Christie said it was the only movie based on one of her stories she had actually liked. Later, after Murder on the Orient Express (1974) was filmed, she said she liked that one, too.

What do you think of Agatha Christie? What do you think about Witness for the Prosecution? 

PSH: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

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What do you make of an actor who played jerks, the morally decrepit, and the bizarre perfectly? Highly popular and respected. Since 1992, critics and fans have praised him when he stepped into the spotlight as the snobby-bully George Willis Jr., in Scent of a Woman. I laughed at him in Twister (1996) and admired him in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). Considered a character actor for a good part of his career, he gained the respect of his colleagues by avoiding stock performances. He brought chemistry, sardonic wit, and authenticity to his characters; in short, his characters were believable and often raised the acting of his co-stars. Here’s an example from Cold Mountain (2003) where PSH plays the hypocritical preacher:

Cold Mountain is one of the best movies from the last twenty years. Hoffman’s dark, humorous performance added depth to the story while the outrageous personality of the preacher felt real. Devious characters became fascinating when Philip Seymour Hoffman was acting.  

There are director/actor relationships that seize a moment and define a decade. For example, DeNiro, DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese mutually benefited from their relationships. In Philip Seymour Hoffman’s case, his collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson was significant. Their films included: Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk-Love (2002), and The Master(2013). While I do think actor Toby Jones was born for the role, PSH did a fine job as a giant version of Truman Capote in 2005 for which he won Best Actor at the Oscars.

Thank you, JORDAN for allowing me to contribute to the PSH Blogathon. I chose the 2007 crime drama written by Kelly Masterson  and directed by the late, great Sidney Lumet who deserves a tribute post all of his own. Some of my favorite films of his include: Twelve Angry Men (1957), Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), Serpico (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Network (1976). 

Leave it to the Irish to come up with this dark, humorous drinking toast: May you be in heaven for a half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead. I think it sums up the story perfectly. Can you escape from your sins?

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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a crime drama about two brothers who are in desperate need of cash. The older, clever brother is Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who works as an accountant at a New York City firm while his cute brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) is submissive and bullied by an ex-wife and his brother. Hank is a loser; he can’t seem to get a financial grip on his life. He’s troubled by private school tuition payments for his daughter and hounded for three months back-pay in child support.

Andy makes a good case for committing a burglary. Andy has a heroin addiction to support and wants to escape the drudgery of a New York life and live easy in Rio with his sexy wife, Gina (Marisa Tormei), who pranced around half-naked and whose only function in the film is to be screwed by males with the last name of Hanson. It is not a role showcasing Tormei’s intellect; at least in The Gambler the character Cassidy showed off her T & A and had half a brain. I think Tormei can act, so it’s disappointing she is restricted to a superficial level set by the graphic, unnecessary opening scene. I blame Kelly Masterson’s screenplay for that. However, Tormei’s curves are much admired by many for my wagging finger to matter. She is the eye candy, and after all, the film is about the brothers.

The best aspect of the film is the outstanding acting by Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney (Sidney Lumet and Finney last worked together on Murder on the Orient Express) and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Andy’s logic is convincing enough to manipulate his brother and that’s important if the audience is going along for the ride. With a toy gun and full insurance to compensate the owners of the jewelry store, and a place Andy knows where he can unload the jewels for cash, it’s a full-proof plan and the perfect heist. Sure, I see his logic.

Now the film becomes a dark comedy. What kind of whack job is this? The owners of the jewelry store are his parents, Andy’s heroin supplier is brought into the scheme, and their grieving father sets out to find the perpetrators. Dramatic irony is one of my favorite rhetorical devices, and it works well here, adding a complex layer in the script. I liked the multi-angled editing to revisit a conversation from a different perspective. I also liked the over-exposed filter used during filming at key moments to stress their stark situation. If you like crime dramas, great acting, and dark humor, you’d love this Philip Seymour Hoffman film.

8/10

Rachel Portman and The Duchess (2008)

Her film scores are feminine and fanciful, haunting and magical. Fifty-five year old English composer, Rachel Portman, was the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Original Score in 1997 for Emma. Her personal stamp as composer is behind an eclectic mix of films and television which illustrates her wide range ability to adapt to differing directors. Known for her strings and wind instruments, several of her scores evoke longing and represent a female protagonist. Her long career is impressive. She epitomizes the importance how a score can elevate the audience’s appreciation of the film. Her scores coat your sensibilities with a creamy, nostalgic emotional residue, and it is easy to forgive whatever shortcomings the film contained because the score echoes in your head long after the credits are gone. These are few of my favorites:

The violin solo grabs my heart and won’t let go.

The flute gives the score its fairy tale flavor. Is Vianne (Juliette Binoche) a good witch or a bad witch?

Whimsical, full-bodied orchestra lifts and floats your emotions like a bird drifting on a breeze. 

The romanticized view of golf as an analogy of life (better than boxing!) and Jack Lemmon? I’m hooked. Director Robert Redford capitalizes on the beauty of nature, and this film is no exception. Despite the stereotype of the “Magical Negro”, it’s a charming tale. The score ties in the mysticism and the nostalgic 30s jazzy-feel of the time. 

This is one of Johnny Depp’s best performances; as Buster Keaton, he was brilliant. The piccolo solo in the score pays homage to the silent era and compliments this 1993 dark comedy. 

If you missed this 2009 HBO biopic/drama starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, you can catch it for free on YouTube. About the reclusive, quirky relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, it is a sad story that F. Scott Fitzgerald could have penned. Listen how the oboe and piano melody accentuates the theme of lost dreams from a bygone era of wealth and prestige.  A must see! 

Here’s a BAFTA composers interview where you can learn more about Rachel Portman:  

The Duchess 

I learned a lot about the The Duchess of Devonshire from the blog of Rachel Knowles found HERE. Or, I recommend reading Amanda Foreman’s account of Georgiana Cavendish in Georgiana: The Duchess of Devonshire.

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Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (7 June 1757 – 30 March 1806)  was an English aristocrat who married at the age of 17 to the Duke of Devonshire. She possessed a charming, passionate personality; her complicated marriage and the role of women during the Enlightenment period is the focus of the biopic directed by Saul Dibb and stars Keira Knightley who represents “G” over a span of ten years.

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With lavish costumes, balls, bedrooms, and the salons of the British nobility, all the drama of a soap opera plays out of this royal family. The Duchess showcases a superb acting performance by Ralph Fiennes as the Duke who exudes power and tyrannical rule, but manages to convey a sensitive, human side that only Fiennes could deliver. Georgiana’s affair with the future prime minister, Charles Grey, (Dominic Cooper), her complicated friendship with her husband’s mistress, Bess Foster, (Hayley Atwell), and the quest to bear a son for the Duke are the primary points of the plot, while the theme of liberty and the limited rights of women are conveyed throughout. Some critics thought the pacing slow, but I did not. I enjoyed the score, the production design, and the multi-faceted personality of Georgiana expressed through Keira Knightley’s acting.

Georgiana Cavendish Devonshire was a progressive feminist, a politician of the Whig party, and a devoted mother as well as a vain, self-absorbed party-girl and gambler. Colorful and charismatic, the film is worth watching to absorb a sense of the dynamic personality of the Duchess of Devonshire.  7/10.

Are you a fan or foe of the film?

What are your favorite Rachel Portman scores? 

Five Shots: Angry Clouds

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Monsoon season has arrived with gusto in Arizona. Off the deck the swirling clouds dumped water and dashed away only to return an hour later and drop sheets of more water. Imagine jagged bolts and thunder that makes you leap, and you have an idea what it’s like to experience a monsoon afternoon. Here are five shots of angry clouds at dusk:

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3.DSC01220[1]

4.

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5. DSC01231[1]

Which shot do you like best? 

Ten Best Movie Posters

Original movie posters are a hot commodity and some are very valuable. Imagine Rocky, E.T., or Jaws framed on your wall.  They are time stamps speaking volumes about our culture, and old school illustrators and graphic artists have my utmost respect. My choices are not a list of my favorite movies but rather a list of admiration for the design and the emotional reaction I have when I see the poster. In no particular order, here are ten favorites:

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The red lips belong to Magenta played by Patricia Quinn.

Perhaps the most quotable film ever? Certainly the most interactive with its audience.

Lips: Michael Rennie was ill The Day the Earth Stood Still / But he told us where we stand / And Flash Gordon was there in silver underwear / Claude Rains was The Invisible Man…

A Saul Bass famous  design.

1958. A Saul Bass famous design.

1927. Designer Heinz Schulz-Neudamm's masterpiece is a worth a million.

1927. Designer Heinz Schulz-Neudamm’s masterpiece is a worth a million.

I liked this article of “The 10 most expensive movie posters in pictures” printed in THE GUARDIAN

Can’t get enough of James Bond movie posters? You can read more about Dr. No HERE

The original poster is the upturned helmet designed by Bill Gold. Oliver Stone apparently maximized the Willem Defoe martyrdom shot into a new poster. It was a brush stroke of genius.

Hildebrandt Brothers

Hildebrandt Brothers

I have a fondness for Hildebrandt Brothers’ illustrations. Maybe you missed my post devoted to their artwork? It’s right here:  Hildebrandt Brothers.

2006, English movie poster

2006, English movie poster

I loved this Spanish, Alice in Wonderland adaptation and how it functioned as a social allegory. How creepy is that entrance? 

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According to IMDb, Jeff Bridges was considered for the role of Travis Bickle. Could he have acted the part as well as Robert DeNiro?  

Bill Gold's  1956 US theatrical release poster

Bill Gold’s 1956 US theatrical release poster

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Thanks to my friend ALEX RAPHAEL who got me thinking yesterday about movie posters. If you could own one, original movie poster, which would it be? 

The First Line in Fiction

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“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”

Thanks to my friend Allen at Wayne’s Journal who shared with me a list compiled by Jason Parnham “50 Best First Sentences in Fiction” found on-line at Gawker Review of Books. It included Stephen King’s thoughts about voice and how important that first line is for luring the reader to read more. King claims it’s the style or voice that captures the interest of the reader, not so much the genre or the character. Whether to mystify, show a time or place, with few words or with many, every reader is attracted to a style of writing that is clear in that first sentence.

Here are a few of my personal favorites. Can you name the author?

1. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

2. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”

3. “All this happened, more or less.”

4. “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

5. “When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared around the, extending upon his countenance like the rays on a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.”

6. “The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”

7. “When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister’s address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money.”

8.  “The terror that would not end for another 28 years, if it ever did, began so far as I can know or tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”

9. “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

10. “In a hole in the ground their lived a hobbit.”

Most of you know I enjoy writing. Here are some of my openers: 

A. “He reached for the hand that was not there with an ache to grab his thumb, trace the outline of his fingers, or scrape off a lengthy fingernail.”

B.”The aged horse smacked a cloud of flies away from its haunches, and the tip of its tail stung Kay’s arm, waking her from her daydream.”

C. “Peeking out from behind the velvet curtain, she counted twenty-five, faceless heads in the dimmed house.”

D. “Embossed with the letters G. H., he lifted the leather glove off the hotel dresser and rubbed the soft hide with his hand and listened to the blood that gurgled from her neck.”

* * * * * * * *

1. Charles Dickens: A Tale Of Two Cities (1859)

2. Franz Kafka: Metamorphosis (1915)

3. Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse Five (1969)

4. John Irving: A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)

5. Thomas Hardy: Far From the Madding Crowd (1874)

6. Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

7. Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie (1900) 

8. Stephen King: It (1986)

9. Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre (1847) 

10. J. R. R. Tolkien: The Hobbit (1937) 

Many of you out there love to write. What are your personal favorites? What have you written?