Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The African Queen (1951)

Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart on a sweaty romantic river cruise in The African Queen

Director: John Huston
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Charlie Allnut), Katharine Hepburn (Rose Sayer), Robert Morley (Reverend Samuel Sayer), Peter Bull (Captain of the Königin Luise), Theodore Bikel (First Officer of the Königin Luise), Walter Gotell (Second Officer of the Königin Luise), Peter Swanwick (First Officer of Fore Shona)

John Huston’s The African Queen is a beloved classic – so much so its odd-couple romance in tropical climes has been endlessly ripped off and riffed on practically ever since it was made. It’s a gentle, enjoyable travelogue of a movie where (truthfully) not much happens, other than we sit back and watch two masters of cinema acting go through the paces with consummate skill.

In 1914 in German East Africa, missionary brother and sister Samuel (Robert Morley) and Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) plough their lonely furrow bringing God’s word to the disinterested natives, their only contact with the outside world being drunken Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), captain of the steam ship The African Queen, who delivers their supplies. Their world is turned upside down when Charlie brings news of World War One. The Sayers plan to stay, until German soldiers burn down the mission and assault Samuel who swiftly dies of fever. Charlie agrees to take Rose out of danger on his steam boat – but on the dangerous journey Rose develops a plan to use The African Queen to sink a German gun boat preventing British access to Africa, and Charlie and Rose find themselves – much to their surprise – falling in love.

Truth be told, nothing happens in The African Queen that you will find remotely surprising if you’ve ever seen a film before. Not even in 1951 could anything in this film be said to be pushing the envelope or offering something different to hundreds of studio epics past. Two people who seem to have nothing in common come together only to find, by heck and by jiminy, they actually are perfect for each other. Obstacles are put in place for them to struggle against but eventually love (and our heroes) triumph over all. Hip hip hoorah! You can see why the picture is so widely loved – it’s in many ways totally unchallenging and familiar.

John Huston seems to know this and just sits back and allows the film to almost tell itself with a professional, unfussy precision. The African Queen is an extremely well made film, sumptuous to look at, and never overstaying its welcome. It’s been boiled down to its barest necessities, and as such it works extremely well. There’s nothing extraneous in there – heck the film only really has three characters and one of them dies in Act One. Huston’s demands to film the entire thing (more or less) on location in the Congo is totally validated by the immersive filth, sweat and heat that reeks off the picture and seems to have soaked into the skin of the actors. 

Huston also understood that the real gold here was the acting – and the chemistry – of his two beloved stars. Tales of the making of the film are legendary – Bogie brought along Bacall, who helped out on catering, Hepburn refused to join the Bogart/Huston drinking sessions and became the only one to get ill from drinking the water, all four became lifelong friends. The script originally demanded Allnut to be a chippy cockney and Rose to be a prim schoolmistress type. The parts were re-written, Allnut into a “Canadian” (yeah right) while Hepburn reimagined Rose as, by her own admission, a sort of Eleanor Roosevelt in the jungle.

But it works a treat because both stars are on fire in this vehicle. Bogart perfectly mixes drunken awkwardness and defensiveness with a roguish charm, and what grows into a sprightly delight at being taken seriously for the first time in his life. Allnut is besotted with Rose from early on – even if he can’t admit it – and his whole personality seems to flourish and grow from her attentions, while never losing that slight “little boy lost” air. Mind you, Rose is as clearly attracted to Allnut early on as he is to her – but with her ideas of standards she would never allow herself to explore those feelings except in extreme circumstances.

Hepburn is such a gifted actor that you always know Rose is a far more intelligent, interesting and dynamic character than the one we are introduced to playing piano at one of her brother’s interminable sermons. Shaking off – with Allnut’s help – her shock at his death, she swiftly displays a head-girlish determination and pluck,that extends from rolling up her sleeves to steer the boat to laying out a plan to torpedo a German gun boat. Far from domineering Allnut, she flourishes and grows just as he does from her attention, and Hepburn suggests worlds of feeling and engagement opening up in Rose that she has never considered possible before.

The chemistry between them is scintillating and extremely warm, while the burgeoning romance is very sweet. I love the gentle way they switch form formal address to “Rosie” and “Dear”, the first few times each with that gentle hesitation that half expects rejection and anger. The film is also surprisingly daring about its depiction of sex (it’s pretty clear Rose and Charlie get jiggy in the boat at least twice while cruising down the river). The film mixes this touching stuff with some generally winning comedy – Rose pouring away Charlie’s huge whisky reserve after a particularly drunken display early on is a highlight – that really plays off the odd-couple combination of the two of them. It also helps play into the sweetness of the romance: Charlie impersonating a hippo to a delightedly bemused Rose is also very sweet.

It’s obvious stuff really – and Huston intersperses a few too many shots of crocodiles and hippos, as if he was keen to hammer home that they actually went on location – and there isn’t much in the film to surprise you or that you might not expect. It’s really all about the success of the two stars working together – and their natural chemistry and warmth spills out of the screen. Really it’s Bogart and Hepburn just doing their thing – but when their thing is as good as is this, you can certainly sit and watch it for ages.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)

Hepburn, Tracy, Poitier and one awkward meal: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Director: Stanley Kramer
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Matt Drayton), Sidney Poitier (John Prentice), Katharine Heburn (Christina Drayton), Katharine Houghton (Joey Drayton), Cecil Kellaway (Monsignor Mike Ryan), Beah Richards (Mrs Prentice), Roy E Glenn (Mr Prentice), Isabel Sanford (Tillie)

Stanley Kramer’s films today are quite easy to knock. In fact, to be honest, they were pretty easy to bash back then. Kramer was a man with immense social conscience, and his films carry the same liberal agenda. They were about “Big Themes” and they had a “Message” that they very much wanted the viewer to take home with them. You can see why so many of them were littered with Oscar nominations. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is perhaps the most famous of his liberal films, and while we’d love to think the theme it covers today – interracial marriage – isn’t still an issue, I  think many people would say it still was.

Joey Drayton (Katharine Houghton) returns to the home of her liberal parents – Matt (Spencer Tracy) a newspaper editor and Christina (Katharine Hepburn) an art gallery owner – with Dr John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) whom she announces as her new fiancé, after a whirlwind romance in Hawaii over the past two weeks. Her parents, Matt in particular, are hit for six – and their doubts are shared by John’s parents (Beah Richards and Roy E Glenn). Can the older generation overcome their concerns to celebrate the happiness of the younger? 

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a sensitive, very carefully handled film, whose liberal earnestness practically drips off the film. It’s so hand-wringingly liberal in its outlook it’s almost impossible not to mock it a little bit. Not least because John is so ridiculously overqualified – a professor of medicine, one of the world’s leading experts on tropical diseases, a nominee for the Nobel Prize – that you can’t help but wonder what he sees in her not vice versa.

This over-qualification was, by the way, an intentional move by Kramer, who was keen that the only possible objections to John could be the haste of the engagement and the colour of his skin. It’s the latter point that becomes the main discussion point, with some hand-wringing concerns around the attitudes of the wider world, and Matt Drayton in particular being moved to question whether he can practise the liberal agenda he preaches. It’s no real surprise to say that eventually all the characters sit down to the eponymous dinner in blissful harmony, but the film is delivering a positive message here.

You could say that it would have been more daring to make John, at the very least, a middle ranking accountant or something at least. But, let’s be honest, at the time this film was made interracial marriages were literally illegal in 17 US states (as the film name checks). Saying that though, the possibility that a BAME male may feel uncomfortably out of place in liberal White America has hardly gone away. It’s one of the reasons why I think the film still works and carries a message today – because if we want to think that these problems have gone away completely today, we are kidding ourselves.

Therefore, however right-on the film may be, it’s still relevant today and it’s still got something to teach us. The world we live in now may well have pushed some of the views and issues expressed in this film underground – we certainly don't (I hope!) bandy around the word “Negro” as often this film does – but they are still there. So Kramer’s hopeful message of reconciliation and overcoming knee-jerk prejudice is still one that packs a punch. It’s that message that brought such an amazing cast on board, not least Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as the Drayton parents. Tracy was extremely ill at the time of the film’s production – he died 17 days after filming completed. Tracy was so fragile – as can be clearly seen at several points – that he could only film for three hours in the morning, and only on intermittent days. The film was only made with him because Kramer, Hepburn and Tracy agreed to take no up-front fee, as Tracy could not be insured to finish the film. Hepburn in particular – Tracy’s partner for over 20 years – nursed him through the film, helping with his lines and carefully watching to make sure he was not overcommitted. Not a single shot of Tracy was taken on location due to his ill-health, and a number of scenes were cleverly shot to avoid Tracy having to be on set as often as possible.

Despite all this, Tracy is magnificent. His underlying warmth and humanity work so well for the part that you constantly warm to him, even while you are as frustrated as many of the other characters  with his lukewarm reaction (bordering on hostility) to the wedding. You totally feel empathy for his situation, while at the same time wanting to give him a slap in the face. And man Tracy knows how to react – he is marvellous in a scene with Richards, where all he does is stand, half turned away from the camera and listen. But in this scene you see Drayton think and reassess everything he has considered in the last 24 hours.

But the whole film is building towards the final 10 minutes, which is nearly a complete Tracy monologue – and this is extremely emotional, not least as we are watching a great actor, aware he is dying, knowing that this is his last acting moment, talking emotionally of his love for his fictional wife, while his real life partner of 26 years sits tearfully in shot. It’s that extra level that really creates the emotional force.

Very good as Hepburn in, it’s clear in many scenes that her mind is more on Tracy than her performance – but she still has many wonderful moments, with similar emotional force. She also has one of the film’s funniest moments, where she imperiously dismisses a gallery colleague for barely hiding her racist disgust. Hepburn won the Oscar but stated she had never watched the film, finding the memory of making it far too raw.

The rest of the cast are also good – you can tell their commitment to the film – with Poitier conveying both human decency and firmness of character. Kellaway is very good as the only person in the film who expresses open-minded joy at the union. Richards has a wonderful emotional speech about the value of love, while Glenn conveys all the awkward frustration of a father who cannot understand his son. 

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a very worthy film – and boy it knows it – but it’s got a sort of innocent idealistic purity about it. Its makers clearly believed that they were making a film that would contribute towards changing attitudes in society. And for all its heavy-handed liberalism, you can say it did to a certain extent - but not as much as it would like to. For that reason, there is a sort of additional poignancy to watching it, knowing that an issue the film makers clearly hoped would be gone for good in 30 years would in fact still be with us 50 years on. So for all its flaws, you can’t help but respect and even feel affection for it.

Friday, 23 November 2018

McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971)

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie fail to conquer the Wild West in Altman's revisionist Western McCabe and Mrs Miller

Director: Robert Altman
Cast: Warren Beatty (John McCabe), Julie Christie (Constance Miller), René Auberjonois (Sheehan), Michael Murphy (Eugen Sears), Antony Holland (Ernest Hollander), Bert Ramsen (Bart Coyle), Shelley Duvall (Ida Coyle), Keith Carradine (Cowboy), Hugh Millais (Butler), Corey Fischer (Reverend Elliot), William Devane (Clement Samuels), John Schuck (Smalley)

The Western is such a familiar genre of Hollywood film-making that you can be pretty familiar with nearly all the concepts that  it contains – from the stranger in town through to the final shoot-out. All these familiar tropes were just challenges though for a film-maker like Robert Altman: how do we make a Western that features all these, but then completely twists and subverts it all into something that also feels like a product of the 1970s rather than the 1870s? Well Altman runs with all this in McCabe and Mrs Miller, his successful anti-Western.

In Washington State in 1902, John McCabe (Warren Beatty), a conman and card sharp, rides into Presbyterian Church, a town so small it’s named after its only prominent building. McCabe’s skills at cards quickly make him rich, and as the town’s mining fortunes grow so do his. He sets up a gaming and cat house in the town. Constance Miller (Julie Christie) is a cockney opium addict with experience of running whorehouses and she quickly partners with McCabe, promising that she can raise his profits tenfold. All goes swimmingly – until big business heads into town and makes an offer to buy out McCabe’s holdings (and the whole town) for redevelopment. When McCabe says no he quickly finds himself in over his head.

Altman’s film combines all the techniques that he had been experimenting with throughout his career into a perfect storm of Altmanesque technique. He and Vilmos Zsigmond, his skilled cinematographer, deliberately “flashed” the film to slightly over-expose it, giving the picture a slight sepia hue like a series of old photos. The camera leisurely roves around like curious spectator to the film, letting itself catch moments of interest here and there – sometimes refusing to focus on events that feel, by rights, that they should be centre of the film. It gives the film a real lived in feeling, while also making it look slightly like a historical record of true events. Either way, as the cold hits Washington State, it looks beautiful – candle-lit interiors mixed with coldly blue exteriors of snow and ice-covered surroundings.

But those visuals are as nothing compared to Altman’s experiment with sound. Sticking rigidly to the script was hardly ever Altman’s way and it’s certainly not here. In rehearsals, the actors felt free to experiment with and rework a script that had already been through the hands of several writers. Altman kept this loose, free-flowing, improvisational tone in the final film. As the camera roves round, so does the microphone, picking up snatches of conversation here and there – sometimes giving us a mixture of conversations from which we need to pick out what to listen to. In addition to that, most of the actors deliberately mumble their lines – or happily deliver them from mouths clutching cigars or chewing food. Anarchic is almost the right word for it – Altman doesn’t want to tell you what to listen to, and is more interested in getting across the atmosphere of the scene rather than the facts and figures. It takes some time to get used to – and at points is highly frustrating – but it creates its own mood. 

And this mood is very different from what you might expect from a Western. There is a distinct lack of glamour here. This world of Presbyterian Church is dirty, grimy and lacking in any moral fibre or real sense of right and wrong. The church itself is respected but largely ignored by the citizens, who are far more interested in drinking, screwing and gambling. When violence occurs it is ignored as much as possible or – as in the final shoot-out that ends the film – it happens around people so wrapped up in their own concerns (from domestics, to a large fire) that they barely notice it happening. Needless to say, for those in the fire fight, there are no rules to be played by at all. People are shot in the back, shoot down innocent bystanders, and play by no rules whatsoever, stalking and shooting opportunistically.

McCabe is a perfect hero for this very different kind of Western. As played by Beatty, he is a cocksure coward nowhere near as clever, confident or controlled as he thinks he is. Arriving in the town, he seems like the height of glamour in his bearskin coat, and he swiftly masters the simple townsfolk with his tall tales and charisma. However, the more people who intrude on this world, the more quickly it emerges that McCabe has very little clue about what is going on, is easily cowed and has only the barest understanding of how the world works. Meeting with a lawyer, one scene later he is parroting a (completely misunderstood) version of the law that he has heard from there. Meeting with the “muscle” from the corporation, he deflates like a balloon, desperately making offers hand over foot. Beatty is very good as this puffed up coward, confused and constantly living a front but out of his depth in the world.

Julie Christie’s Mrs Miller is far more worldly than him, immediately able to recognise the dangers and understanding exactly the sort of men McCabe is dealing with. Mrs Miller’s opium habit is a quietly understated obsession, one the other characters seem unaware of, but which the viewer alone seems to know about. It raises questions of course – is this meant to imply perhaps some of what we see is a drug induced fantasy? But it doesn’t impact otherwise the relationship she develops with McCabe, part meeting of partners, part a protective relationship with Miller guiding McCabe.

The rest of the cast is stuffed with a series of Altman regulars, all of whom deliver fine performances. The stand-out is Hugh Millais, an English writer making his acting debut, who is simply sublime as the articulate and ruthless chief heavy sent by the company to intimidate McCabe.

For the film itself, your enjoyment of it is largely going to be affected by how easily you plug into its style of storytelling. There is very little story for much of the first half of the film, instead events continue in a loose and undisciplined style, but the second half delivers a more focused story of ambition pushed too far, and culminates in an impressively filmed ruthless shoot out. It is perhaps more of a film that is about the atmosphere and the style than the story, but as a redeveloped Western that carries across the style of the grimy 1970s it works extremely well. At first I thought I would never get into it, but by the end I found myself wrapped up in the story it was telling. Visually and performance-wise it’s superb. Altman is an acquired taste, but acquire it and you will be richly rewarded. 

Coda: Much like The Long Goodbye I watched this film about a week ago at time of posting and I find myself thinking over several sequences in it again and again with ever more admiration. When watching it I felt it had been over promoted by critics. Now I increasingly think it might be something very special indeed.