Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Movie Review: Test Pilot

Test Pilot (1938)
directed by Victor Fleming, starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy

(Note: This is my entry in the Build-Your-Own Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe.)

Jim Lane (Clark Gable) was born to ride the skies. He's a test pilot, which is just another way of saying he's rough, reckless, and foolish enough to try anything. His best friend, mechanic Gunner Morse (Spencer Tracy) has had his back for as long as he cares to remember. Gunner knows that Jim is destined to die young, but he still sticks by him, always watching out for danger. But as it turns out, one day, Jim crash-lands and there, sitting in a Kansas wheat field, is the one danger Gunner never expected. Said danger goes by the name Ann Barton (Myrna Loy) and it doesn't take long for sparks to fly between her and Jim. The attraction is so intense, the pair impulsively marry. Gunner disapproves, but before long, he finds that Ann is a warm, wonderful, self-sacrificing woman who worries about Jim just as much as he does. The two form a strange but fierce friendship as they watch over Jim, hoping and praying that this crazy guy they both love will come out okay. But it'll take more than love and luck. It'll take everything they have to give.

Test Pilot is such a textbook example of old-school MGM filmmaking, from the polished heads of its mega-watt stars to the foot-tapping thrills of its action sequences, that I have to think of it as Louis B. Mayer's extended apology for the reviled Parnell. I can just imagine Mayer's directives to the creative team. "Okay, so Parnell was boring. Quick, what's the opposite of Irish politics? High-speed plane racing? Got it, it's gold. And none of that hero of the people jazz, from now on, Gable's back to the boozing and the women. If there's any heavy stuff, let Spencer take care of it. But don't give him too much, it's got to be all about Gable and Loy. Maybe just make it Gable and Loy for the first hour, until we've hooked 'em. Make sure it all ends with marriage and a baby though, we want good, clean fun here."

I kid, but it all adds up to something deliciously enjoyable; Test Pilot is a perfect example of the studio formula firing on all four cylinders. It's essentially two different movies held together by one central conflict. The first half is a pure Clark Gable and Myrna Loy romantic comedy, complete with banter and wrenches and awkward trips to the lingerie department. The second half is a drama about a loyal wife (Loy) and a best buddy (Spencer Tracy) trying their best to stick by a guy who'll probably break both their hearts. While often tagged as a melodrama, the only real plot of Test Pilot is the inevitable tension of being, well, a test pilot, and the toll it takes on those around you.

In so many ways, despite its glossy MGM pedigree, Test Pilot feels like a long-lost Howard Hawks film. It's really more of a hang-out film than a melodrama, closer kin to something like To Have and Have Not or Rio Bravo than it looks on the surface. It's mainly about the chance to hang out with Loy, Gable, and Tracy for two hours and to watch them banter, bicker, and take care of each other. Scenes that a more plot-driven movie would use as a simple gag get drawn out for the sheer pleasure of it. 

For example, there's a sly joke after Loy and Gable are married that Loy, who eloped in a hurry, needs a nightgown. Tracy reminds his buddy of the problem and Gable brings it up distractedly to Loy, who responds with a perfectly timed eyebrow raise, as if to say, "Do I really?" The movie could have stopped there, but instead we get to dawdle over a charming scene of Loy daring Gable into the lingerie department and snickering into her sleeve as he makes a total botch of it. The gag just keeps going and building and you're just so grateful that Test Pilot took the time for it.

Of course, the Howard Hawks film that Test Pilot most closely resembles is the aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings and after seeing both films, I'm firmly convinced that Hawks took Victor Fleming's film as a personal challenge. There's a definite resemblance in both films' central theme of how tough you have to be for aviation and how women who love aviators are forced to be even tougher if they want to hold onto their men. However, the Hawks film takes the position that these men are doing what they love and only the people who can keep up with them are allowed to stay. The Fleming film, on the other hand, is pretty explicit that Clark Gable's choices are wreaking havoc on the nerves of his wife and friend. His recklessness is played up more as immaturity than bravery. While it's not too surprising that an MGM film would ultimately come down in favor of domesticity over macho bravado, it's fascinating to see how both films spin such different morals from the same kind of material.

Incredibly, Myrna Loy ranked the loving, loyal Ann Barton in Test Pilot as her favorite role, ahead of her indelible character Nora Charles and her brilliant performance in The Best Years of Our Lives. However, her choice doesn't seem quite so odd after you've seen the film. The role of Ann gives Loy the chance to play an entire emotional spectrum, taking her from light and flirtatious in her early courtship scenes with Gable to wry and witty during the early part of their marriage and finally to a sadder, more desperate woman in the end, one who's fully realized what kind of bargain she's made. 

It's really a perfect role for Loy because she gets to play so many different moods but is never forced to take center stage by herself. She's always playing off the boys and nobody could do that better than Loy. She was never happier as an actress than when she could be the perfect foil for her leading man, matching her moves to his like an expert dance partner. She made six movies with Clark Gable and her style with him is always a little slower and more openly sensual than her rapport with William Powell or Cary Grant. No doubt, Loy knew that the rat-a-tat patter of her screwball roles would tear holes through Gable's more macho delivery and she adjusts accordingly.

For me, Loy proves just how great an actress she is here in the way she can make her character's every action seem like the most logical next step. Myrna Loy standing around in a Kansas wheat field looking like she's waiting for cocktails to be served? Makes sense. Falling for Gable in the span of 24 hours? Perfectly natural. Getting engaged to a local and flirting with Gable all the while? Only sane thing to do. Marrying Gable, the crazy test pilot, after knowing him one day? Of course. Constantly going back and forth between leaving him forever and staying with him? She'll do it and come off like the wisest, warmest, wittiest woman you could ever hope to meet. Clark Gable finding someone like her in a wheat field is like the equivalent of someone shoving the winning lottery ticket into your hand and begging you to take it. Just watch her in the scene where she imitates Clark Gable as a bear; it's impossible not to fall for her.

For fans of Spencer Tracy, Test Pilot is essential: for my money, it makes a far better case for his acting talents than the film that actually won him the Oscar that year, Boys Town. Not only is it a more interesting performance, it's also an amazingly underwritten one; Spencer Tracy just takes the part of the loyal sidekick and runs all the way to Alaska with it. Tracy's character Gunner is not given any particular backstory or subplot to call his own. He seems to be utterly wrapped up in looking after Jim, with no thought for himself. He's also a grumpy killjoy who spends most of his scenes frowning over at his buddy. It's hard to blame Tracy for being annoyed that he'd gotten stuck with playing second fiddle to Gable again.

And yet, damn it all if Tracy doesn't draw your eye in every single scene he's in. Tracy was a canny enough actor to realize that he didn't have to resort to any silly stage business like waving a hat or flipping coins to steal attention from Gable. All he has to do is watch him. He's always watching Gable, always aware of him. The audience can't help but care about Gunner because he cares so much. He cares better than his friend can understand. And when Gunner forms a platonic bond with Ann, it's surprisingly sweet and touching. They become almost like parents to Jim themselves, both of them fretting and worrying and fervently trying to buck each other up. Tracy's performance here should be studied by character actors, to remind them that sometimes you're better off on the sidelines.

Of course, Tracy himself wasn't above hamming it up on occasion. There's an anecdote about the filming of one particular scene that demonstrates the Gable-Tracy rivalry perfectly. At the time, Gable had the box office clout but Tracy had the critical praise. Tracy had no interest in playing sidekick to Gable in another MGM film and the insecure Gable was always nervous that Tracy would blow him off the screen. So during the filming of Tracy's death scene, Tracy deliberately tweaked Gable's nose by drawing out every single gasp and dying groan and twitch and mumbled word. Gable had to cradle Tracy in his arms all while his costar died a more drawn-out death than Camille's. Finally, Gable got so frustrated, he let Tracy's head go with a loud thunk and shouted, "Die, goddamit, Spence! I wish to Christ you would!"

As the rowdy, immature Jim, Clark Gable is admittedly playing a pretty standard Gable role. He's gruff but flirtatious with Loy, devil-may-care when it comes to his job, and mortally afraid that something will reveal his hidden heart of gold. There's nothing wrong with Gable's acting here, far from it. It's just that to anyone who's seen plenty of Gable movies, it leaves very few surprises. Loy and Tracy both act rings around him in this one. 

However, Gable does get one indelible moment, one that Howard Hawks would outright steal for Only Angels Have Wings. After losing a fellow aviator to a brutal crash, Gable and the other pilots retreat to a bar. One well-meaning patron starts up a toast to the winner and they drunkenly join him. But when he raises his glass and says the name of the dead man, Gable snaps to his feet, dead sober in a flash. "Who's he? Never heard of him." The other pilots also forswear the name of their fallen friend, honoring him by refusing to speak of him. It's the only code they can live by. The scene is every bit as powerful as the "Who's Joe" moment in Only Angels Have Wings and while I would normally take Howard Hawks over Victor Fleming in a heartbeat, I think it's a damn shame that Hawks' film is the only one that's remembered.

Test Pilot actually took a Best Picture nomination in 1938, one of those odd cases of a film with no big social relevance, no big acting moments, and no particular importance that manages to sneak onto the awards list solely because it's a very well-made film. For me, however, I think Test Pilot is worth watching, not because it's deep or weighty or important. It's because it's such a sterling example of old-fashioned MGM filmmaking back in the days when they really did know what the public wanted. They knew they could spin a good yarn just by taking three great actors and giving the audience the chance to spend plenty of time with them. Watching Loy, Tracy and Gable together is exhilaration enough. Whether they're up in the sky or down on the ground, they're stars.

Favorite Quote:

"She's crazy, I broke all the records, too. I entered high school a sophomore and came out a freshman!"

Favorite Scene:

Isn't it obvious? Myrna Loy's impression of Clark Gable as a bear. I defy anyone to watch it and not find their hearts set a-fluttering by Loy.

Final Six Words:

It bounces more than it soars

Note: The Myrna Loy gif is credited to norascharles tumblr.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Farewell, Lauren Bacall

 She's a real Joe. You'll fall in love with her like everybody else.

Lauren Bacall (1924-2014)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Movie Review: The Queen of Spades

The Queen of Spades (1949)
directed by Thorold Dickinson, starring Anton Walbrook, Yvonne Mitchell, Edith Evans

(Note: This is my entry in The British Invaders Blogathon, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts.) 

Night after night, Captain Herman Suvorin (Anton Walbrook) goes with his fellow officers to a club, where the laughing sons of nobility stare at the gypsy dancers and play the card game faro until the sun rises. Suvorin, a strange, solitary man, never spends any time with the dancers and never spends any money, but there's a furtive hunger in his eyes as he watched the cards. Andrei (Ronald Howard), the only one in the company nice enough to try to be Suvorin's friend, is puzzled by his behavior, but Suvorin, a poor man who despises his wealthier comrades, is determined not to play faro until he's certain he'll win.

One night, Suvorin discovers a book that promises him the key to unbelievable wealth. The book tells the story of the Countess Ranevskaya, a beautiful, desperate woman who sold her soul to the Devil in order to win the secret of the three winning cards. With the secret of the cards, she won enough money at faro to keep herself from ruin. Suvorin is excited beyong measure at the story, especially when he discovers that Ranevskaya is still alive now an old and irascible crone (Edith Evans) who's never once breathed a word of the secret cards to anyone. Suvorin becomes obsessed with learning the three cards at any price. Even if it means seducing the countess's innocent young ward Lizaveta (Yvonne Mitchell). Even if it means loss of life or sanity. Even if he throws his own soul onto the fire...

For a film that Martin Scorsese himself referred to as a "masterpiece," The Queen of Spades has been strangely overlooked for decades. Even now, while it's attained a certain small cult status with those who've seen it, in the U.S., it still only pops up on a dual DVD with Dead of Night (not that Dead of Night isn't a good film in its own right) and it doesn't usually pop up when people are chatting about all the great films of Britain's postwar period. Maybe it just has too much competition; The Queen of Spades was nominated for a BAFTA in 1949, the same year as another little film you might recollect, oh, The Third Man that was it. Maybe it's because Thorold Dickinson, the film's director was born under an unlucky star since despite his own good reputation, his movies (the 1940 British Gaslight, Secret People, Hill 24 Doesn't Answer) haven't always been the easiest to get a hold of. Or maybe it's because The Queen of Spades is easy to mistake for just another cozy British ghost story. 

In fact, the film is tremendously arresting in its visuals, its set design is amazingly elegant for its shoestring budget, and its performances are all topnotch. It's creepy, it's thrilling, and it horrifies in all the right place. Finding The Queen of Spades kicking around on Youtube or in out-of-date DVD releases is like realizing that the eccentric little old lady neighbor you've been ignoring for years was really Miss Havisham all along.

Adapted from a Pushkin short story, The Queen of Spades tells the story of Herman Suvorin, a man who becomes convinces that the riches and esteem he craves will be his if he can learn the secret of how to win at cards. It's a simple enough tale that teases you as to whether our hero is literally selling his soul or just going completely off his head. But for me, The Queen of Spades takes that simple story and makes it beautiful. Despite the fact that director Thorold Dickinson was given the assignment only five days before it started, despite the fact that they had the budget of a mayfly supper, and despite the fact that it showcases little actual horror, The Queen of Spades is a visual feast, creating a cold, haunted vision of Imperial Russia that could rival The Scarlet Empress.

Much of the credit has to go to Dickinson, who's endlessly inventive in his distorted camera angles, twisted mirror shots, and imagery. In one moment that made me literally catch my breath, he goes from a shot of Herman Suvorin scratching out a love letter while a spider spins a web in his dusty room to a shot of Lizaveta swooning away on her bed, her fingers suggestively reaching under the pillow to caress his letter as the transposed image of the spider keeps spinning over her face. 

In another sequence where a younger and more beautiful version of the Countess makes her bargain with the Devil, Dickinson blurs the edges of the scene, as if we're watching something not quite of this world. To hint at the doom that will befall her, all he has to do is show a shot of some mysterious figure's gnarled hands slowly working out the details on a tiny doll, a little miniature of the Countess. And when the Countess does make her fateful visit to the place that, in the film's cryptic words, "left a mark on her soul," Dickinson leads up to it by showing us the Countess walking through a shadowy tunnel, coming to a door that enters into pitch blackness. We hear her scream and we hear the scream of her horses but nothing more. And when the light comes back,  the tiny doll is being trapped under a glass bowl by those same unknown hands. When the movie cuts to the real Countess, she's pleading to a painting of the Virgin Mary for mercy but in a merciless answer to her prayers, the faces of Virgin and Infant slowly turn to black. It's as great as anything you'll find in a Val Lewton film.

The legendary stage actress Edith Evans, here playing the old, crabbed Countess Ranevskaya, is the film's most impressive visual effect. Just watching her hunch across the screen, with her huge powdered wig teetering on her head and her eyes darting around suspiciously is like watching some grotesque oddity from Alice in Wonderland come to life. The Queen of Spades was actually Evans' screen debut, but she's so assured onscreen that you'd think she'd been doing films for years. In her line delivery, Evans is a perfectly banal, constantly complaining old woman, but you can't help but notice something haunted and despairing in her eyes. She strikes the perfect balance, keeping you guessing as to whether Evans is an ordinary woman who's become the unfortunate target of Suvorin's delusions or a soulless crone who knows far more than she's telling.

Dark-eyed, regal Yvonne Mitchell, also making her screen debut after years on the stage, is surprisingly very good as the naive, romantic Lizaveta, the Countess's companion. She's lovely and good-hearted, but her life with the Countess has kept her sheltered from the outside world. Despite Suvorin's brusque manners, poor situation, and unattractive appearance, his ardent love letters (diligently copied out of books) are enough to set her head spinning. It would be easy to write off Lizaveta as just another ingenue, a helpless pawn in Suvorin's schemes. But Mitchell has too much dignity in her manner to let you dismiss her entirely. Instead, you get the sense of a woman who could very well grow into strength and intelligence, given the chance to experience the world. By forcing her ward into seclusion and servitude, the Countess has ironically turned her into the same reckless, unhappy woman she herself once was, seeking relief in a faithless lover.

Ronald Howard, son of Leslie Howard, gets the film's most thankless role as the pure-hearted Andrei, Suvorin's aristocratic foil. As the only character not to originate from the original Pushkin story, his main purpose is to provide Lizaveta with a happy ending. Still, Howard shows more than a few sparks of his father's talent, giving Andrei a genuine warmth and sensitive watchfulness that makes you root for him to bring Suvorin down. Judging by his work here, Howard should have had more of a career.

Like his other great obsessive role, Lermontov in The Red Shoes, Anton Walbrook is again the cold, vaguely inhuman creature whose eyes light up and whose hands tremble, not for a fellow human being, but for something intangible. In this case, it's privilege, not art. He looks at the beautiful, adoring Yvonne Mitchell as if he can stare right through her to the life of wealth that awaits him. Considering that the only other character he spends any time with is an attractive young man, who seems rather fond of him for no apparent reason, it's tempting to try to work in a gay subtext here. However, Walbrook doesn't play it that way; he's just as bored making small talk with Andrei as he is writing love sonnets to a woman. 

That chilly detachment certainly fits for the character, but it did leave me feeling a little removed from Suvorin for a good part of the film's runtime. Unlike Lermontov, who can at least boast that he's bringing beauty into the world, Suvorin's concerns are all wrapped up in himself and so his downfall doesn't feel particularly tragic or shocking. I'm not one to complain about characters being likable or not, but I couldn't help wishing for a little more insight into Suvorin.

Still, that minor complaint aside, Walbrook's performance is knock-out spectacular once Suvorin goes from pinched misanthropy to complete insanity. Intensity was Walbrook's great gift as an actor and he brings it full-force to this role, commanding your attention simply because his needs are so raw. He wants the secret of the cards and he wants it so much that everything else in the world has turned to ashes for him. His one scene with Edith Evans is a stand-out, but I'm also enthralled by the moment when he finally feels he's won. Walbrook mutters to himself, hardly daring to believe it. He closes his eyes in relief. And then he stands up as if to stretch but instead, Walbrook put his hands to his chest, clawing at his own skin in some kind of bestial triumph and then makes this undefinable noise. It's like a bird of prey cawing, I quite literally can't think of another actor ever doing anything like it. And then to cap it all off, Walbrook lifts his hands up, lets out a few hysterical sobs, and ends with a glass-rattling scream that would unnerve even the most jaded horror fan. You don't know whether to be more terrified of him or for him. There's plenty of actors who can make a meal of a mad scene, but Walbrook truly makes this unique and memorable.  

In a lesser film, the director would have just let Walbrook's performance carry the whole thing, but Thorold Dickinson creates a movie that's just mad enough to keep pace with its feverish hero, using mirrors, shadows, sounds, and eyes to tell the old story of what happens when we want too much. More people should know it and more people should talk of it. And more people should be talking about Thorold Dickinson, a man who played his best even when fate dealt him an unlucky hand. The ghosts of the other great movies he could have made haunts The Queen of Spades just as much as the story's ghosts do.

Favorite Quote:

"Take life as you find it."
"I'd rather take it by the throat and force it to give me what I want."

Favorite Scene:

For me, the most thrilling scene in The Queen of Spades comes when Suvorin hides in the Countess's room in order to beg the secret of the cards from her. Dickinson carefully draws out the suspense. He shows us every slow step of the Countess being made ready for bed, her body suddenly shrunken without the weight of her wig and jewels. She mumbles to herself the same prayer we heard the younger Countess make, "Holy virgin, have mercy on me." In the darkness, Evans' eyes look like two black holes. Suddenly she sees a black apparition next to a painting of the Virgin. She rears up and the shadow steps forward to reveal himself as Suvorin. He comes forward, pleading, presenting himself as a supplicant. The Countess looks away from him, mute. Suvorin falls to his knees, asking her to help him in the name of God and any human feeling, but she moves away. Suvorin's pleas turn to demands and then finally to threats. And still the Countess refuses to answer. By this point, the audience is almost as maddened as Suvorin, wanting desperately for this woman to share what she knows. But what if he's a madman tormenting an innocent old woman? The film doesn't tip its hand either way and it ups the tension immensely, as you keep trying to figure out who's most in danger here.

It's hard to overstate just how brilliantly matched Walbrook and Evans are in this scene. Walbrook brings all his vocal gifts to Suvorin's shifting, increasingly savage speech and Evans uses the power of her face alone to show both great dread and a strange, mute contempt. I won't give away how the scene ends or the little shock coda afterwards, but it left me very grateful for directors who know how to let actors bring the horror all on their own. Sometimes you don't need CGI demons coming up through the floorboards or overacting Satans (actually scratch that--you practically never need that). Sometimes all you need is the terror in two people's eyes as they slowly realize they're staring into the face of their own damnation.

Final Six Words:

Sends shivers of delight and horror