PICKS OF THE WEEK
The King's Speech (A)
U.K.: Tom Hooper, 2010, The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay Entertainment
The King's Speech -- which tells the story of King George VI's chronic speech impediment, and of how he overcame it with the help of a boisterous Australian actor/therapist just in time to help Britain win World War II -- was, of course, this year's "Best Picture" Oscar winner. And that makes sense, even though it wasn't the movie I'd have voted for. (My favorite was True Grit.)
But this highly polished, highly entertaining British period drama from the Brothers Weinstein definitely has "class act" credentials. It's well-written (by 71-year-old David Seidler, who also scripted Tucker: A Man and His Dream for Francis Coppola), well-directed (by Tom Hooper, British helmer of the recent PBS program John Adams), and extremely well-acted by the usual top-notch British cast -- especially by the three leads, Colin Firth (as the introverted, microphone-shy Duke of York and eventually, George VI), Geoffrey Rush (as his rowdily eccentric therapist, Lionel Logue), and Helena Bonham-Carter, as Elizabeth, the future, much-beloved late Queen Mother of today's Queen Elizabeth.
Just as important, The King's Speech has the look and stamp of class -- of quality, literate, intelligent scripting, impeccable style, good politics and good intentions -- that Oscar voters like to find and reward.
The King's Speech throbs with emotion, with full-hearted feeling, and that's what makes it work. It carries us along with George VI's (or Bertie's) anguish at his shattered speech, with the embarrassment of the Windsors, the Royal Family, including Michael (The Singing Detective) Gambon as a crusty King George V, Claire Bloom, Chaplin's Limelight angel, as Queen Mary, and Guy (Memento) Pearce as the abdicating Edward VIII a.k.a. the Duke of Windsor), and with the tension and fear of the oncoming winds of World War II. You could call all their acting florid and unsubtle, or you could also call it bravura. It's certainly entertaining.
The movie begins in 1925, with Bertie freezing up on microphone at Wembley Stadium, and ends in 1939 with his "speech," throwing down the gauntlet to Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler, a man who spoke very well indeed. (Insanely well.)
The climax of it all is the King's speech, and the story leading up to it: the initially stormy, finally productive teacher-student relationship -- and friendship -- between Bertie and Lionel.
That odd comradeship has to survive seemingly irreconcilably opposed temperaments and classes. Bertie, despite his unnerved and unnerving stammer, has some of the toniest credentials in the Western world.
Lionel, by contrast, has no highborn family, no degree, no official seal of approval -- only his self-made, self-taught techniques and his practice as a speech doctor. Lionel isn't even British. He's from Australia, land of wild colonials, ex-prisoners, outlaws, the outback and cheeky characters of all kinds.
The King's Speech is about the magic of words, the magic of voices, and it's also about the importance of social imagery and public persona, especially in a class-conscious society like the old British Empire. But most of all, it's about an unlikely friendship. That unlikeliness, and that genuine camaraderie, couldn't have found two better actors to express it, than Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth.
As a movie star of unusual activity, Rush is also an odd guy out. He looks a little like an Australian Bogie, but slightly homelier, and he projects more raw, sparking, high-voltage brain power than almost any of his contemporaries.
Rush's forte -- from David Helfgott in Shine to the Marquis de Sade in Quills -- is that he can play geniuses -- even obnoxious, eccentric ones -- convincingly. And Lionel is both genius and eccentric, which is what makes him such a live wire on screen, and such a perfect contrast to Firth's royal wallflower George VI.
If Rush is a great movie eccentric/intellectual, Firth remains one of the most affecting contemporary British leading men romantics. Even against the formidable challenge of Laurence Olivier in the 1940 MGM movie of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, most audiences consider Firth's Darcy in the 1995 BBC Simon Langton version the role's perfect player.
Working with Rush and Bonham-Carter, Firth shows again how terrific he is at expressing repressed longing -- and that trait clashes brilliantly with Rush's Lionel, who doesn't repress anything.
The movie, thanks largely to Rush and Firth and the sparks of language they strike together, becomes an ode to expression and friendship and the English language, and to the power of the human voice, in the right hands. (Extras: commentary with Tom Hooper; featurettes; interview with Hooper, Firth and other cast members; speeches by the real King George VI; real Lionel Logue highlights.)
Le Cercle Rouge (A)
France: Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970, Criterion Collection
Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) was, in some ways, the Vermeer of the heist movie. A master of classic French film noir and neo-noir, as well as a lifelong devotee of American cinema, and especially of heist movies like John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle and Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow, Melville was a cool, sure-fingered expert at all the on-screen details and fine points of separating casinos from their winnings, jewelry stores from their jewelry, gangsters from their lives and armored cars from their loot.
He was also an immaculate artist. Like Vermeer, he had an eye for the human physiognomy and for the physical world, and he put his heart into every line. Like Vermeer, his pictures were deceptively simple and utterly haunting, punctilious and mysterious -- and, like Vermeer, he didn't leave many behind him.
One of the greatest of all Melville's films, with one of his most spectacular heists, is Le Cercle Rouge, made three years before his death: a classic neo-noir which has, as its centerpiece, a long, wordless, spine-chilling depiction of a jewel robbery in the Place Vendome in Paris. The job is pulled off with rare skill by three strangely honorable thieves, played by three great international film stars of the period: ex-convict Corey (played by Alain Delon), escaped prisoner Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) and ex-cop Jansen (Yves Montand).
The movie, a prototypical heist thriller, is about how these three come together, how they execute the robbery, and how they're finally driven apart -- largely through the quiet skill and determination of their deceptively lumpish, bourgeois-looking but relentless police antagonist, Captain Mattei, played by the international movie comedy star, Andre Bourvil (often known simply as "Bourvil").
Captain Mattei, a mild-looking man who lives alone with three cats, has the face of a sad clown. He is obsessed with finding Volonte's Vogel -- who slipped out of handcuffs and escaped from a speeding train where the two men, cop and convict, were sharing a sleeper car. Mattei is humiliated. The broken handcuffs become a psychological link.
Despite being tracked in a huge manhunt through the fields, forest and a river, Vogel slips again through the dragnet thanks to a seemingly fortuitous accident. By chance, he hides in the trunk of the car belonging to Delon's Corey, who sees Vogel secreting himself, and deliberately helps him break through the police cordon. Corey, recently released from jail himself and also a recent killer (of two torpedoes), happens to need a cool customer to help with the robbery. Vogel, who almost shot Corey soon after their roadside meeting, becomes Number Two.
The third man is an old partner of Vogel's: Montand's Jansen, a former cop and once crack rifleman, now a seemingly hopeless alcoholic whom we first see sweating on his bed in the grip of delirium tremens and a nightmare filled with lizards and snakes. Jansen becomes Number Three. Will he crack?
Even as the trio prepares for the heist, though, Captain Mattei -- relentless, canny, threatened himself by brutal police superiors -- remains on Vogel's trail. And Mattei has an invaluable source, an underworld mole, in Santi (Francois Perier), a double-dealer who looks like a ferret in a suit and who owns a nightclub that seems to specialize in crooked assignations and ersatz '50s American movie musical numbers, set to a cool jazzy score by Eric Demarsan. (The chorus girls in those numbers are almost the only women we see in the movie, except for one faithless lover and one cigarette girl.)
Now, the clock-hands move. The trap has been set. The jewels are waiting. Melville stages each of the acts of his criminal trio's quest and tragedy, with the dispassionate, endlessly observant eye of a scientist -- or of a great artist. The three thieves and their stalker and betrayers are about to meet -- in the Red Circle.
The title of Le Cercle Rouge refers to an alleged saying and story of Buddha, who supposedly draws a red circle with red chalk and explains to his students that those who are destined to cross paths will do so within the circle, no matter what. In this movie, as in Buddha's curious tale, Fate will encircle them, you, us. No matter what.
Melville made and released Le Cercle Rouge in 1970, one year after making his World War II French Resistance masterpiece, Army of Shadows (1969) and two years before making his last film (with his last heist), the flawed Un Flic (Dirty Money), starring Delon, Catherine Deneuve and Richard Crenna -- and three years before he died.
Let me circle back for a moment. There is one vital quality of Vermeer's, besides his taste for the everyday, that Melville misses completely, probably never tries for: The painter's warmth. (I admit my analogy is imperfect.) Melville's films noirs are cold, cold, especially when cinematographer Henri Decae (of Melville's Le Samourai) shoots them. His crooks are cool. (They speak little and tend to wear raincoats and fedoras and to smoke cigarettes, like Bogie.) His cops are icy. His world is dark: noir to the brim. His stories chill the soul and cool down the blood, while the heart beats on.
Melville made Le Cercle Rouge in 1970 and it was cut, against his wishes. This Criterion DVD has the complete, restored 140-minute director's version. In French, with English subtitles. (Extras: excerpts from the Cineastes de Notre Temps French TV program on Melville; on-set and archival footage, including interviews with Melville, Delon, Montand and Bourvil; video interviews with critic/Melville expert Rui Nogueira and Melville's assistant director Bernard Stora; trailers; booklet with essays by Michael Sragow and Chris Fujiwara; interview with composer Demarsan; Excerpts from Nogueira's book-length interview Melville on Melville; an appreciation of Melville by director John Woo.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Greatest Classic Legends: Bette Davis (A)
U.S.: various directors, 1938-43, TCM/Warner Brothers
Bette Davis: What a dame. She was one of the inarguable Hollywood immortals. She was also a female movie superstar with great range, one of the few who could evolve in her very long career through so many changes: from bad girl to glamour queen to Oscar goddess to thriller-movie gargoyle to revered elderly legend, and yet never sacrifice most of her audience's sympathy. Not even when she reared back in Beyond the Forest, assumed a saucy, frosty stance, swept the house with a contemptuous gaze and snorted, "What a Dump!" -- the famous opening line in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? put by Edward Albee in the vitriolic mouth of Martha, a character otherwise inspired by bad-tempered independent filmmaker Marie Menken.
What a dump. At times that seems Bette's indictment of the whole overblown, trash-happy Hollywood system that she battled for decades (especially when she was the discontent, dissident queen of the Warners lot), to get better roles, a better shake, better movies.
She had to fight. She did fight. Always. Bring on Jack Warner. Bring them all on. After a flotilla of early '30s potboilers, in which she and other gifted but often ill-used Warners contract players like Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson would bat and fast-talk each other around, she became an acting star in another studio's movie: as the sullen, slutty waitress Mildred in John Cromwell's RKO movie of Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham's semi-autobiographical novel of his most unhappy love affair. (In real life, reportedly, "Mildred" was a sullen, slutty boy.)
That was the role for which she was denied a deserved Oscar. (1934 was the year of the big It Happened One Night sweep). But it was also probably responsible for the undeserved Oscar she got next year for the bad girl potboiler Dangerous.
But Bette very richly deserved the next Oscar she got, as the scarlet women turned self-sacrificing gallant lady in Warner Brothers' and director William Wyler's (and co-writer John Huston's) magnificent Southern drama Jezebel, maybe the best movie Davis ever made, and maybe the best role she ever played.
Yes, I remember Margo Channing in All About Eve, and also all the other films in this TCM/Warners set (Dark Victory, Now Voyager and Old Acquaintance). I'm quite partial to both Margo and Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.
But Jezebel is the movie that the great French critic Andre Bazin insisted was, along with John Ford's Stagecoach and Marcel Carne's Le Jour se Leve, one of the "perfect" films of the cinema. Watch it again here, and you'll probably agree. Davis, Henry Fonda, Wyler and Huston and the writers, and cinematographer Ernest Haller all did achieve Hollywood perfection, or as near as you could get it in 1938. Jezebel is one of the movies for which she'll always be remembered and always should be remembered.
Bette went on, scrapping, battling, pushing, holding her throne throughout the '40s, or at least trading off with Hepburn (and occasionally her other nemesis and future Baby Jane combatant, Joan Crawford), pushing, slipping a little, making a spectacular comeback with All About Eve, then hanging on, working still, making other semi-spectacular comebacks and holding on almost to the end with 1987's fine Lindsay Anderson movie drama The Whales of August, with her superb costar Lillian Gish (nobody's nemesis and the most enduring movie actress of them all). Bette had her last movie acting credit as Wicked Stepmother (an embarrassing one, but a credit nonetheless) in the year she died, 1989.
She must have loved to act. And, of course, we loved watching her.
She wasn't ever really a total glamour queen, you know. No Garbo, no Dietrich, no Carole Lombard. She could look pouty, almost plain at times. In Now Voyager, one of her signature roles, she's a wallflower who blossoms. Even her divas make it on spunk and brains more than camera-seducing dazzle.
Still, in Jezebel and in some others, she's beautiful. Astonishingly beautiful. It may seem a cliche to say "it comes from within," but it does, it does. (Extras: commentaries by James Ursini and Paul Clinton (Dark Victory), director Vincent Sherman and Boze Hadleigh (Old Acquaintance) and Jeanine Basinger (Jezebel); featurettes; vintage shorts, one with Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra, and cartoons, including Tex Avery's great, raunchy Swing Shift Cinderella and his Hitler-bashing Blitz Wolf and Hanna and Barbera's Oscar-winning classical piano riff with Tom 'n Jerry, The Cat Concerto; scoring session music cues; trailers.)
U.S.: William Wyler, 1938
With Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent, Donald Crisp, Fay Bainter and Spring Byington. Co-Script by John Huston, from Owen Davis' play.
Dark Victory (A-)
U.S.: Edmund Goulding, 1939
With Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ronald Reagan and Henry Travers. Script by Casey Robinson.
Now, Voyager (A-)
U.S. Irving Rapper, 1942
With Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper, Bonita Granville and Ilka Chase. Script by Robinson, from the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty.
Old Acquaintance (A-)
U.S.: Vincent Sherman, 1943
With Davis, Miriam Hopkins, Gig Young, Roscoe Karns and Anne Revere. Script by John Van Druten and Lenore Coffee, from Van Druten's play.