Barbara Stanwyck: Sorry, Wrong Number

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Sorry, Wrong Number(1948) is a film noir starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. Directed by Anatole Litvak with Sol Polito as cinematographer, it was first written as a radio play in 1943 starring Agnes Moorehead, then adapted to the screen by Lucille Fletcher.  The film’s structure and the cinematography maximize suspense. Of course, what makes the film is the performance by Barbara Stanwyck whose Leona starts off bossy and queenly but sinks to a mental state of fragility that commands pity by the story’s end. It’s a meaty role any serious actress would crave and Barbara delivers.

Leona Stevenson is a manipulator. As the pampered daughter of a pharmaceutical magnate from Chicago, she falls for a small town, handsome Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster) and manipulates him to marry her. Her health is a form of manipulation, too. If she convinces herself she is an invalid, she can control her husband to be at her side. One night, as she frantically calls looking for her missing husband, she overhears men discussing their murderous plot to kill a woman.  From there, the story weaves back and forth from flashbacks to real-time. The phone is the central object that connects the murderers, her husband, and Sally Hunt (Ann Richards) who reappears after an eight year break up with Henry. The phone is the thread that keeps the narrative alive and progressing. The story feels like a Nancy Drew mystery when Sally Hunt reveals her part in the plot, but otherwise,  we learn what mischief Mr. Henry Stevenson is up to in a compelling way. Barbara’s facial expressions and distress is palpable, and I am biting my nails with expectancy when out of the dark shadows the tension mounts to the apex and end of the story.

Anatole Litvak’s choice to use mirrors on his sets is highly effective for enhancing the mystery. Mirrors in the restaurant to check what’s behind you, mirrors over the bed or strategically placed to highlight the phone or a hand. The phone booths, the three-story spiraling staircase, the marquis rock on Leona’s finger, and Edith Head‘s costume designs make Sorry, Wrong Number a thrilling visual treat.

I only wish I could have heard this on the radio. With the lights off. I bet it was magnificent.

1975: Barry Lyndon

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Thanks to TOM  Tom and  MARK  who are hosting a mid-decade blogathon and allowing me to contribute. I selected the bewildering Stanley Kubrick film epic, Barry Lyndon, not because it was the easiest film to watch in 1975–One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won Best Film at the Oscars–but rather Barry Lyndon has had many a movie viewer scratching their heads and wondering what to say about it. When I think of Barry Lyndon, I think of wine lovingly created from Pinot noir grapes. To appreciate the film is an acquired taste that takes time and patience. In other words, when I watched it in my teens, I was bored. I still couldn’t appreciate it in my twenties or thirties. Now, I see the beauty, feel the sophistication, and marvel at the mastery of Stanley Kubrick.

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Won: Best Set Design, Costumes, Score, Cinematography; Nominated: Best Director, Film, Adapted Screenplay

Why It is Great 

If you are fond of period pieces, Kubrick showcases the European, eighteenth century class structure. For the protagonist Barry Lyndon, all that mattered was improving his station to the rank of gentleman by any means possible. It was this ambition to circulate among the gentry that propelled his actions and the plot. Barry Lyndon rises as an Irish nobody to rubbing elbows with the aristocracy. His time in the British and Prussian armies show the servitude of its soldiers. Scoundrels rob coaches and horsemen. Widows and single mothers wonder how best to feed their children. The poor are hunched over and exhausted. The rich with powdered wigs and beauty marks sit in opulent galleries bored or playing cards and gossiping. Kubrick’s subtlety for demonstrating class divisions by painting a cinematographic portrait is perfect. The costumes, their props, chandeliers, fountains, and manicured grounds are breathtaking.

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The film is one of the most beautiful films ever made. Kubrick stages and frames each shot with meticulous care. The beauty of the rolling hills of Ireland and England, the manorial estates, the duels, the military formations, the positioning of periphery people from each class is orchestrated. Now add the period music which is selected to enhance a transition or the mood of the scene. The viewer is privy to a ballet of poise and symmetry. I would not be surprised to learn Wes Anderson, who employs similar staging in his films, is heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick. It is why I love Wes Anderson films.

The Narrator 

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Michael Hordern. He had the warm, buttery voice of the quintessential British gentleman. He was a character actor you might remember in Where Eagles Dare (1968) or as the Admiral in Gandhi (1982). His voice represented all things having to do with the British canon. I remember him in the 80s animated series of The Wind and the Willows as the Badger and the voice of The Wise Man in The Labyrinth. In Barry Lyndon, his voice had an interesting role in the film.

Stanley Kubrick adapted Thackeray's novel into the screenplay.
Stanley Kubrick adapted Thackeray’s novel into the screenplay.

The adapted screenplay neatly divides the story with the narrator telling us how to interpret events and how to feel about Barry Lyndon. This approach reduces Barry to a puppet of fate and the audience is distanced from his internal thoughts. The narration also conveys key information which feels invasive. Notice how the narrator’s relationship with Barry Lyndon changes from Act I to Act II. He introduces our protagonist like an uncle who knows too much and gives away too much. By the end of the second act, he refers to him as Barry, and the formality is gone. We have traveled along with Lyndon during his escapades and are exhausted as though we parented a juvenile delinquent and don’t know how much of the blame resides with us. The narrator mimics the stuffy verbiage of British literature from the 1800s while discussing events which occurred in the 1700s. It’s a Victorian tale in love with the Romantic period. In 1975, mainstream audiences passed it by for more modern tales like Shampoo and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. 

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Act II is more interesting than Act I because of the parallel construction of Barry and his stepson, Lord Bullington. Jealousy, betrayal, and revenge spark up dramatic tension. The saintly younger son, Bryan, brings out the best in Barry Lyndon while Bullington brings out the worst. There is moral ambiguity running through the story echoed by the narrator. Do you like Barry? Does Barry’s corrupted soul bring about his demise? Is a he a pawn of fate?

For me, the weakness of the film is the arm’s-length distance the viewer has with Barry Lyndon.  This distance is exemplified by the reversal of shots in the cinematography. Frequently, the shot begins as a close up and withdraws to the wide angle long shot and stays there. The upside would be to show Barry is lost in the big picture and unable to control his destiny. Clever. But the downside is that the distance keeps me disengaged. Perhaps it is the fault of Ryan O’Neill whose acting is wooden and his passive wife, Lady Lyndon, played by Marisa Berenson, is numb throughout? Maybe it’s because the film is 3 hours and 7 minutes long that has one looking for the ending before it happens? Epics are hard to watch. However, notice how the emotional peaks are connected around physical expressions varying from kissing, duels, whippings, fights, and bodily mutilations.

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Stanley Kubrick’s wish to film using natural light to create a pre-electric world had him searching for lenses that were fast enough to capture the candlelit interior shots. He found his solution at NASA and was able to authenticate the natural world of the 1700s. I respect him for that. You can read more about his lenses HERE.

Do you think Barry Lyndon is Kubrick’s under appreciated masterpiece?

Film Spotlight: Thunderball

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I’m a snob when it comes to James Bond, and I have my reasons why the franchise is at its best during the Connery years. First, if I ever have the means to visit Sweden, I’d have to visit the James Bond museum. Otherwise, there’s nothing better than the  007 Official Site where I pulled tidbits and details to add to my opinions. If you are a James Bond addict, then I highly recommend you look at Bond from statistician Derek Young’s perspective. Chance magazine–a statistical assessment of James Bond. It’s an in-depth analysis of the history behind the franchise. Why is Thunderball one of the better Bond films? There are traditional aspects one expects in a Bond film:

The Opening Song by a Star

If James Bond had a singing voice it would sound like Tom Jones. He’s Welsh, virile, and tall-dark-and-handsome. You could drive a truck through his vibrato. Composed by John Barry & Don Black, the opening song “Thunderball” described James Bond as ruthless when it came to seducing women and killing men. The lyrics may be lame, but the power of the twangy horn section and the robust pitch of Tom Jones’s voice was an oral eruption contributing to the sexiness factor of Thunderball. Want to know more about the songs of James Bond? Here’s an article worth visiting reelreactions J Bond songs . Tom Jones had to follow the sensational Shirley Bassey in Goldfinger (1964), considered by many as the best singing performance in Bond history. Apparently, Tom Jones passed out singing the last high note, but it was worth it for his career. Due in part to his association with the James Bond franchise, his popularity soared. From 1969-1971, Tom Jones was rewarded with his own variety show on television; the playboy performer collected panties thrown to him from admirers in the audience when he sang.

Sexiness Factor

Thunderball-Wallpaper-1 After fifty years and 23 Bond films, Sean Connery remains the best James Bond. In 1965, he was celebrating the height of his popularity for playing the spy. He defined the part. While other Bonds are prettier, Sean Connery exuded that  je-ne-sais-quoi. His wry smile and sex-appeal defined masculinity as much as any Bond-girl defined sexual femininity. Connery tapped into the James Bond machismo best, that is, Bond was the man who always conquered his foes and possessed any woman of his choosing with cool wit, high-class props, and an insatiable appetite. Thunderball was a very sexy film. From the opening song with the silhouette water nymphs to stunning Bond-girls, what a perfect location to film at the Bahamas where near-nudity is perfectly normal and everyone is as gorgeous as the climate. Also, this was the first Bond film to use wide-screen Panavision, too.  Let’s face it, Thunderball was an orgy of the senses, stirring the audience as if struck, well, by a thunderball. This all done and still rated PG.

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The Villain

Antagonist Emilo Largo, played by Adolfo Celi, made good use of his granite face and strong chin to play the sinister villain who attempted to black mail the western world with two stolen atomic bombs.  There’s nothing like an eye-patch to toughen up a face. His wielded his power over his cronies in scuba gear with harpoon guns. I loved the concept of an underwater army. It’s rare to witness an underwater battle scene. There’s still plenty of cool gadgets and car chases and explosions for traditional thrill-seekers, but I appreciated the difficulty of filming the underwater sequence. Thunderball ranks up there as number seven with a score of 4 out of 5 shaken, not stirred martinis.

Are you looking forward to Spectre starring Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, and Léa Seydoux? It’s scheduled for November, 2015.

Film Spotlight: The Hustler

My friend Nuwan Sen is hosting the “Essential 60’s blogathon”. It offered me the opportunity to highlight a perfect film, right up there with On the Waterfront, Citizen Kane, Apocalypse Now, and Shawshenk Redemption.  Yes, it’s really that good.

I’ve written about The Hustler and The Color of Money before. If you missed it, be my guest and read all about it:  https://cindybruchman.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/scorsese-paul-newman-tom-cruise/

The formula for a great film requires a strong script, great acting, and sharp cinematography, Music always matters as well as creating the culture of the setting–production design, costumes, and sound. The Hustler has it all.

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Fast Eddie wants to become a pool hustler. He challenges the best in New York City, “Minnesota Fats” played by Jackie Gleason. Gleason was an accomplished pool player and the shots seen on the screen were made by him. Even though he was on the screen for only 20 minutes, Jackie Gleason’s presence conveyed the power and cool detachment of a champion.

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George C. Scott played the stake horse, the pimp, the devil, who backed neophyte Fast Eddie Felson (Newman). His manipulations caused havoc between Eddie’s professional life and his relationship with his girlfriend, Sarah, played by Piper Laurie.

What a tragic character. Sarah was an ex-prostitute who tries to convince Eddie to have a meaningful, functional relationship. Eddie desires her and pool and he finds himself in the middle. Sarah sees how destructive Burt Gordon (Scott) is and tries to warn him with disastrous results. Rarely had an alcoholic, female character presented on the screen from the early 60s evoke greater compassion and authenticity (I can only think of 1962, Days of Wine and Roses, with Lee Remick).

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IMDb and DVD Special Features Trivia

Paul Newman had never held a pool cue before he landed the role of Fast Eddie Felson. He took out the dining room table from his home and installed a pool table so he could spend every waking hour practicing and polishing up his skills. For four months he practiced–most  shots are Paul Newman. His tutor? No other than 14 World Champion Willie Marsconi who is the silver fox holding the bet money in the movie, and a poster lines the wall of the pool hall. The masse shot (pop the cue ball on the top and it will spin around the balls) were made in the film by Marsconi. Got a minute? Watch it here:

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George C. Scott refused his Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category because he didn’t believe in actors competing against each other unless if were playing the same role. But when he lost the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to George Chakiris in West Side Story (1961), it solidified his convictions that Hollywood was political and biased and led to Scott rejecting his 1970 win in Patton.

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Robert Rossen was a pool shark himself as a young man. For his film, he hired real street thugs and enrolled them in the Screen Actors Guild so that they could be used as extras. Rossen was heavily involved in the “Red Scare” witch-hunt during the 1950s. He was a member of the Communist Party from 1937 to 1945 and blacklisted by HUAC. After refusing to name names, after being subpoenaed in 1953, he relented to save his career and implicated 57 people as having had communist affiliations. As a result of his cooperation, he was permitted to work again, though he did not return to Hollywood. Ouch! Not a friend of Arthur Miller, no doubt, who went on to write the 1953 play The Crucible and give his approval to the 1996 film adaptation starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder.

The Hustler’s strength lies in the culture of men at that time period. This was a time when a man was supposed to be tough, self-centered, kind of the castle, chauvinistic and homophobic. A generalization, but films frequently reveal the expectations of society and this film does that. I admire toughness while cringing from it as a female. In the 50s and 60s, the strong, wide-shoulders, square chin, John Wayne stereotype was alive and copied, for better or worse.

Paul Newman was nominated but did not win the Best Oscar award. He’d have to wait for an honorary one for several more decades. He is the prime reason you should watch The Hustler. His energy and expressive performance is as strong as Brando’s in On the Waterfront.

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Don’t forget to check out Nuwan Sen’s blog. He specializes in Audrey Hepburn and classic films. His posts are smart and interesting:  http://nononsensewithnuwansen.wordpress.com/

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What do you like best about The Hustler?

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