Friday, March 10, 2017

Lizzie (1957)

Lizzie [videorecording (DVD)], a Bryna production; a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer picture; produced by Jerry Bresler; directed by Hugo Haas. Turner Entertainment Co., Warner Bros. Entertainment, [2016]. WB Home Entertainment Group archive collection. Based on a novel by Shirley Jackson. Originally released as a motion picture in 1957. Performers: Eleanor Parker, Richard Boone, Joan Blondell, Hugo Haas. Summary: Elizabeth is beset by headaches and menacing letters from the sinister Lizzie, a brash, hedonistic woman who emerges from within, compensating for Elizabeth's shyness. A caring neighbor steers her to the psychiatrist who unlocks her disordered mind, bringing out another steadier woman named Beth.

style ***
substance ***1/2

covers much the same territory as the better-known and more lauded Three Faces of Eve. Fascinating that both were released in the same year, and at a time when the movies’ fascination with the psychoanalytic thriller was actually fading. In any case, Lizzie beat Eve to the punch by a few months, and more important, may well be the superior work.

As the lady with three distinct personalities, Eleanor Parker gives one of her best performances in a career in which the standout turn became the norm. She was really in her element in these intense, edge-of-the-ledge roles, and this one’s a doozy. It’s to her credit that she accomplishes all with relatively little scenery chewing, relying more on subtleties of body language as well as vocal and facial expressions. Truly a tour-de-force.

Lizzie also boasts a first-rate supporting cast: director Hugo Haas does double duty as a kindly neighbor, Richard Boone nicely underplays a sympathetic psychiatrist, and best of all is Joan Blondell as Lizzie’s alcoholic floozie of an auntie. Indeed were Miss Parker’s performance not so strong, Miss Blondell might well have flat out stolen the movie from her. Also of note is Ric Roman as a smarmy womanizer.

Director Haas moves things along with a sure hand. The story is told in a flat, neutral visual style with only a few noir-like touches. It’s all very professionally done but, probably as a result of the shoestring budget, with the look and feel of a well-produced late Fifties television program. On the other hand, the minimalist, stripped down quality, in contrast to Eve’s high gloss patina, actually works to Lizzie’s advantage in presenting a bleak moral universe that parallel’s the heroine’s troubled inner life. Special mention should be made of the on-location scenes filmed at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, the architecture of which is used to great effect.

A couple of minor quibbles with the DVD packaging: the image is generally good but not always as clear as it might be. And one wishes for bonus features (all we get is the trailer). A film as noteworthy as Lizzie would be excellent fodder for commentary, interviews, historical documentaries, etc.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

cabaretera noir: Aventurera (1950)

Aventurera [videorecording]. Producciones Calderon S.A.; argumento de Alvaro Custodio; adaptacíon de Carlos Sampelayo y Alvaro Custodio ; una pelicula de pedro y Guillermo Calderón; dirigida por Alberto Gout. Cinemateca, distributed by Facets Video, [2004]. Originally released as a motion picture in 1950. Cinematography, Alex Phillips; editor, Alfredo Rosas Priego; music, Alberto Domínguez, Antonio Díaz Conde and Agustin Lara. Performers: Ninón Sevilla, Tito Junco, Andrea Palma, Miguel Inclán. With: video introduction by Michael Donnelly.
Summary: Elena tries to make a new life for herself after her mother leaves her alone, but she is drugged, seduced, and forced to work as a dancer/call girl in a nightclub. She soon rises to stardom as a dancer, but still plots revenge and escape.

style ****
substance ***1/2

Aventurera is a primo entry in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, and, more important, perhaps the finest exemplar of the Mexican cabaretera subgenre, which is the rough equivalent of the American films noirs of the era. The critical difference, as the name implies, is that cabaretera always uses a club or casino as the backdrop and includes a goodly amount of musical numbers, also that cabaretera was more up front in its depiction of sensuality and sordidness than its Code-inhibited American cousins.

In any case the usual cabaretera story has considerable Sturm und Drang, and to spice things up, as if we needed more, the cabaret often doubles as a front for prostitution and white slavery, with the proprietor (or proprietress) leading a double life, usually as an otherwise respectable figure in high society. And, again paralleling film noir’s leftist sentiments, Aventurera and other films of its ilk swept away the curtain and revealed the seamy
side of urban economic affluence in Mexico during the post-World War II years [1]. Changing tastes and other factors doomed the cabaretera to a short life span, little more than five years, and by 1956 it had more or less disappeared.

The plot of Aventurera, such as it is, concerns the character Elena (Ninon Sevilla) and her attempts to go straight after being forced into life as a prostitute and cabaret dancer by an evil bordello madam. Plot twists proceed fast and furious and the viewer can be forgiven for having difficulty keeping up with all the goings-on. But these are smoothed out by the phantasmagoric dance numbers which feature a high-energy Ninon at her most beguiling, never more so so than in the surrealist Arabian nights number, the over-the–top glory of which would do Busby Berkeley proud.

Aventurera was re-released in the late 1990s to much acclaim, and today enjoys a considerable cult following, mostly for its camp elements. But even so, after seven decades the film holds up exceptionally well, but more to the point holds up well when considered against the American films noirs of the period. And ultimately, even with all the talent in front of and behind the camera, this is Ninon Sevilla’s film start to finish.

Echoes of
cabaretera can been seen even today in our current pop culture, most prominently in the immensely popular Mexican telenovelas. There was no American equivalent of cabaretera, though the closest is probably Gilda, and, strangely, in its more tenuous way, Casablanca. One quibble: the Facets DVD includes an informative introduction by film historian Michael Connelly, but a film as significant as Aventurera seems to scream out for real-time commentary as well as other extras. Perhaps Criterion can be persuaded to release an all-the-trimmings version in the future. Still, even in its present incarnation, a wild ride, and a fun movie.

[1] Aventurera has also been cited for its proto-feminist elements. The strong-willed Elena refuses to bend to the dictates of a patriarchal system; she resists the machinations of high-handed would be masters, be they a kindly, albeit clueless, husband, or a ruthless gangster, and ultimately her independent spirit prevails. There’s also the character of Rosaura, who, despite the unsavory nature of her enterprise, is a capable and successful businesswoman.

Further reading

Las reinas del trópico: María Antonieta Pons, Meche Barba, Amalia Aguilar, Ninón Sevilla, Rosa Carmina, by Fernando Muñoz Castillo. [México, D.F.] : Grupo Azabache, 1993. "Se termino de imprimir en julio de 1993 en Offset 70, S.A. de C.V., Victor Hugo 99, Mexico,03300, D.F."

Joanne Hershfield, Mexican Cinema/Mexican Woman, 1940-1950, University of Arizona Press, 1996.

Paula Barreiro Posada, ''The Only Defense is Excess: Translating and Surpassing Hollywood's Conventions to Establish a Relevant Mexican Cinema,” Anagramas Rumbos Sentidos Comunicación, v9 n18, Jan./June 2011.


Thursday, March 2, 2017

White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd (1991)

I just had the happy fortune to catch White Hot on the Escape TV channel and enjoyed it very much. White Hot is of course a made-for-tv movie version, ca. early Nineties, of 1930s actress Thelma Todd’s mysterious death, and thus might be dubbed a proverbial guilty pleasure. But guilty or no, the film has much to savor.

While the basic structure of White Hot – flashbacks and reminiscences seen through the eyes of friends and associates – recalls, of all films, Citizen Kane, the movie nonetheless is a well-made product quintessentially typical of its genre and era: high gloss, gauzy, and cattily gossipy. But White Hot manages to rise above its aesthetic pedigree by virtue of its excellent cast and especially the loving recreation of the Thirties Hollywood milieu.

It’s true Loni Anderson is a tad old for the role, and her wardrobe and hair style are more Jean Harlow than the real Thelma Todd. But no matter. Ms. Anderson does a great job in portraying, with exceptional sensitivity, the brio and energy of an appealing yet complex personality – by turns confident, insecure, streetwise and naïve.

Also worth a mention is Scott Paulin as a Philip Marlowe-esque investigator for the district attorney’s office, and Maryedith Burrell as actress and Thelma’s friend Patsy Kelly. Maybe not a masterpiece, White Hot is still lots of fun and especially a treat for old movie buffs, in its way little short of irresistible. And besides which, the whole business is just so darned mysterious. There’s nothing like an unsolved, and, in this case, probably unsolvable, mystery.

Further reading: Michelle Morgan, Ice Cream Blonde: the Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd, Chicago Review Press, 2015.