Criterion Sunday 135: Rebecca (1940)

What a film, eh? Rebecca feels in many ways like the ur-text for every filmed gothic melodrama where people stand in gloomy rooms withholding secrets from one other, whilst dolefully looking out of frame clutching some treasured object. It’s all gripping novelistic stuff that most people will probably be familiar with already — a naïve, unnamed young woman (“I” in the novel) marries a wealthy landowner and finds she can never live up to her unseen but omnipresent (not least in the title) predecessor. It’s Hitchcock’s first proper Hollywood film, even if still largely set in England, and it’s made with panache, employing a fluid, gliding camera in glorious monochrome. Joan Fontaine pitches her role just the right side of coquetry, and Laurence Olivier has the gruff ways of a Mr Darcy type.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock; Writers Joan Harrison and Robert E. Sherwood (based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier); Cinematographer George Barnes; Starring Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson; Length 130 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 November 2016.

Criterion Sunday 78: The Bank Dick (1940)

W.C. Fields is one of those distictively American comic performers who have always passed me by, having not been brought up on the brand of vaudevillian comedy of pratfalls and slapstick that he seems to fit into. Indeed, another great troupe in that lineage (the Three Stooges) is represented here by a small role for Shemp Howard as a bartender. It’s a comedy style that really emphasises physical grace, not something you’d expect from a man with his diminutive stature and alcoholic persona (which I gather rather carried over into his personal life), but Fields is excellent at these, no doubt due to a lifetime of stage training which began with juggling. This 1940 feature film also incorporates a number of tropes that are repeated throughout his oeuvre as elements of his comic persona, including a dismissive attitude to people of other races (luckily a fairly minor part of this film) and a strong dislike for children — though they tend to get one over on Fields’s protagonists in the end. As to the film itself, which follows the fortunes of one Egbert Sousé (who is indeed a souse, but not pronounced that way) as he unwittingly foils a bank robbery and quickly finds himself installed as a security guard, it’s a loose structure to hang a series of gags and setpieces. However, that needn’t be a bad thing for a comedy, and there are indeed plenty of laughs, though quite how you’ll take them depends on your taste for Fields’s work.

Criterion Extras: Nothing is included on the disc aside from the film, but there’s a printed essay with a bit of context for the new viewer.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Edward F. Cline; Writer W. C. Fields [as “Mahatma Kane Jeeves”]; Cinematographer Milton R. Krasner; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 72 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 February 2016.

Christmas in July (1940)

Preston Sturges is fairly acclaimed as a master of screwball comedy with a penchant for narrative experimentation in films like Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve (both 1941), but even amongst his oeuvre, it seems like Christmas in July, his second feature film as director, is underrated. Which is a pity because it has two qualities I greatly admire in a comedy: laughs; and a concise running time. A lot of filmmakers probably think their films need more of everything, but the 67 minutes of this film proves quite the opposite — though Sturges does cram his scenes with quite a lot of action and an abundance of plot.

We start, however, with our protagonists, Jimmy (Dick Powell) and Betty (Ellen Drew), sharing a NYC rooftop view while talking about Jimmy’s dreams of winning a contest, any contest — he habitually enters them in the hopes of making a fortune and a break for himself — though at the moment the film begins, he’s specifically focused on the slogan contest for Maxford House Coffee. The couple live together, unmarried and in relative poverty, wondering at gadgets that make the most of a single-room apartment. In any case, things snowball from there, and the couple experience ups and downs, all borne along at the whim of those who have money, but exemplifying the caprice of capitalism and the way it confers moral authority on those who are presumed to be wealthy.

The film is a masterclass in tight narrative structure, conveying all kinds of details about their lives with great economy, revelling in the warmth of their extended tenement community, and poking fun at the self-important manager classes. It’s also, as is not unusual either for Sturges or for films made during this wartime period, partial to a bit of sentimentality. However, Sturges never wallows in it, and there’s always a sharp riposte even after a period of relative mushiness. And along the way, Jimmy repeats his absurd winning slogan so many times that it goes from being idiotic to maybe-actually-good-who-knows, proving the words of Jimmy’s boss that he hasn’t a clue whether any idea is any good unless someone else says so. So perhaps it’s because Christmas in July didn’t win any awards that it’s underrated? In any case, it’s easily worth 67 minutes of your time.

Christmas in July (1940)CREDITS
Director/Writer Preston Sturges (based on his play A Cup of Coffee); Cinematographer Victor Milner; Starring Dick Powell, Ellen Drew; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 12 February 2016.