Saturday, 16 September 2017

A round-up of old movies: A Place in the Sun, Cross of Iron and Forrest Gump

Cute Disabled Man
Just as I decided earlier this year to plug some of the yawning gaps in my knowledge of literature by setting myself the task of reading 25 significant novels within 12 months, so I've decided to catch up on some old films that I really should have seen by now. I spent much of my time in Cornwall reading Kindle editions of books about old movies - and I was surprised by how many well-known ones I hadn't seen. I don't just mean nouvelle vague or Italian Realism classics - I'm talking about popular mainstream English language films from mainstream directors, starring big-name actors. By the time I'd left university, where several classic films seemed to be playing somewhere every night, my film knowledge was quite impressive - but has become increasingly less impressive over the years: I've got some catching up to do (and I've some spare TV-viewing time following the shameful decision to remove Fox News from the Sky EPG). I started with Forrest Gump...

...which I've avoided because of that clip they're always showing in which Tom Hanks tells us that his mom always said that life was like a box of choclits. I didn't much relish the prospect of spending almost two and a half hours watching yet another movie featuring a "cute disabled man", and I'll admit to being further put off by Ben Stiller's turn as Simple Jack in Tropic Thunder and this Fast Show parody (The Cute Disabled Man from Touchy-Feely Pictures):

About a month ago, stung by my son's disbelief that I'd never seen the film, I watched it. It's a superb movie: funny, touching, absorbing. Bit icky, certainly - but, dammit, it came out of Hollywood. Tom Hanks is brilliant as the mentally-deficient, athletically-gifted (running and ping pong) hero; Gary Sinise is absolutely terrific as the platoon leader who Gump rescues in Vietnam - despite his desire to die in battle - and who, minus both legs, falls into a debauched life involving drink, drugs and prostitutes before joining Forrest in his wildly successful shrimping business; and, while Robin Wright is a bit ho-hum as the love of Forrest's life, Sally Field gives a good performance as his tough, homily-spouting mother. Yes, (*SPOILER ALERT*) Robin Wright expiring from a standard un-named Hollywood wasting disease a year after she and Forrest finally marry is a bit barfy - but, by that time, we're so sold on the picture, it doesn't spoil it. 

What really saves Forrest Gump from drowning in its own sentimentality is the humour - I was surprised by how often it made me laugh out loud. Tom Hanks's meetings with various presidents are a delight. This sequence, involving Nixon, was the highlight of the film for me: 

Hollywood at its populist, feelgood, professional best. 

I didn't hold out much hope for A Place in the Sun, the 1951 women's weepie starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Melodrama is my least favourite genre, I've never rated Elizabeth Taylor as an actress, I have an aversion to the sort of neurotic, bedwetting, concave-chested, whiny-voiced malnourished, angst-ridden girlie-boy characters Montgomery Clift specialised in, and the film is based on An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, a screamingly anti-American far left writer who was, by all accounts, a total shit. So I pressed the "play" button with a somewhat heavy heart, determined to loathe every minute of the film. I didn't exactly fall in love with it - but I found myself admiring almost everything about it, especially the acting and the direction. 

First, the acting - Clift, as usual, portrays a diffident, inarticulate, hunched over, square peg of a young man with battered-puppy eyes, who looks like a fifteen-year old wearing his dad's suit. The worst exponent of this particular acting style was James Dean - Rebel Without a Cause may be the most annoying film of all time - but whereas I invariably find Dean unwatchably irritating, Clift is one of those actors you can't take your eyes off (no matter how much you may want to). This is one of his very best performances - he's borderline mesmerising. As a bonus, Elizabeth Taylor for once genuinely inhabits the character she's playing, and gives an uncharacteristically convincing performance. Colour me astonished! *SPOILER ALERT* The detective investigating the suspiciously convenient death in a boating "accident" of Shelley Winters, the dowdy, tubby, tedious co-worker girlfriend Clift has knocked up - and who he desperately wanted rid of - is played by Raymond Burr, who, as so often in his 1950s film roles, is splendidly menacing. 

The pace of the film is a bit slow for modern tastes, but the director, George Stephens, deploys every device and technique at his disposal expertly. The myriad ways in which he links scenes - fades, slow dissolves, having the sound from one scene continue into the next one etc. - represent a film-making masterclass. I actually applauded the scene where Stephens has Clift and Taylor noisily cavorting in a speed boat on the lake in which Shelley Winters has drowned, while, in the foreground, a transistor radio on the deserted jetty blares a news report about the search for the man who was seen with her. No wonder Stephens got an Oscar for his efforts. I've watched - and enjoyed - a lot of B-movies in recent months: watching A Place in the Sun felt like exchanging a limited but amusing two-door runaround for a superbly-engineered luxury car with all the trimmings. 

I've been hearing praise for Sam Peckinpah's 1977 British-German war film, Cross of Iron, ever since it was first released. I've always meant to catch it one day, and finally got round to doing so two nights ago. Because I respect the taste of many of its admirers, it pains me to admit that it's a bit of a stinker. The Germans are fighting the Russians, and things are going really badly. The four main characters are German soldiers, played by James Coburn (Corporal, then Sergeant, Steiner), James Mason (Colonel Brand, his commanding officer), David Warner (Captain Keisel, No. 2 to James Mason) and Maximilliam Schell (Captain Stransky). Coburn is a bitterly disillusioned, brilliantly effective, much-decorated, battle-hardened soldier who despises the German Army and all officers and war in all its forms - i.e. he's THE HERO. Schell is a vile, cowardly, duplicitous aristocrat, determined to win the Iron Cross, even if he has to lie, cheat, blackmail and kill his own men to get it - i.e. he's THE VILLAIN. Unsurprisingly, Coburn and Schell don't hit it off when the latter takes charge of the platoon. Both of them give excellent performances - in fact this could be Coburn's finest performance, despite his alarmingly white teeth and general physical floppiness (presumably the result of his severe rheumatoid arthritis, poor chap). 

Mason and Warner are not as good as the two principles: Mason wanders around being vaguely empathetic and looking a trifle bemused. The floppy-haired David Warner sits around like a half-shut knife, chain-smoking and twitching, looking more like some late-'60s Notting Hill hippy recovering from a really bad trip. Whereas Schell is straightforward "aristocratic bastard" boilerplate, and Mason is more like a grumpy Oxbridge don who finds himself in the middle of a somewhat unpleasant fracas, Coburn's and Warner's characters are utterly anachronistic: they've been whisked back in time from a soft, liberal future into the very heart of a conflict where they wouldn't have lasted ten minutes - Coburn would have shot for insubordination and Warner for lack of moral fibre. But they all do what they can with the roles they've been assigned.

As for Peckinpah's direction, it's lamentable. The slow-motion violence which was so effective in his earlier films seems tawdry and cheap and out of place in this one: hell's bells, why bother to gussy up the unimaginable horror of a truly hellish conflict? This was the only time he directed battle scenes of this sort, and he makes a pig's breakfast of them. It's bad enough when the Germans and the Russians are fighting each other - their uniforms aren't that easy to distinguish, and we can only pick out Coburn because he's too cool to wear a helmet - but when the Germans start killing each other, it becomes impossible to figure out who's who.  The picture bombed in America, but did great business in Germany - presumably because three of the four main characters are "good" Germans, and even Maximilliam Schell's preening Prussian professes contempt for the Nazi Party.

Disappointing, to say the least.


  1. Very interesting post. Have not seen "Gump" so cannot comment. But I have seen "Charly" [1968], "Ryan's Daughter" [1970] and "Shine" [1996] in which potrayals of various forms of mental illness all won Oscars for the actors [Cliff Robertson, John Mills and Jeffrey Robertson - all very fine actors]. Even Peter Sellers got a nomination for playing "Chance" in "Being There" [1979].

    And the ladies. Olivia de Havilland won an Oscar for "The Snake Pit" [1948] and in 1982 Jessica Lange got a nomination for her depiction of Frances Farmer in "Frances".

    All these films were excruciating to sit through, but the lesson is there. If you want to win an acting gong take on the the role of someone who is deranged. Oh God, I've just thought about Glenda Jackson in "The Music Lovers"! No sleep to-night.

  2. See Kate Winslet's speech in Extras "'re guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental!"