The Bad and the Beautiful

Don’t worry. Some of the best movies are made by people working together who hate each other’s guts.

Seeing as Kirk Douglas celebrates his 100th birthday today I wanted to make a point of featuring one of his movies to mark the occasion. With one of the great movie stars I figured it would be appropriate to choose a movie about movie-making, not only one of the best of that little sub-genre but one of the best Hollywood has produced. The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) is a carefully crafted piece of work, episodic in structure but with an organic, flowing quality that ensures scenes and sequences segue naturally to provide us with a portrait of a man both shaping and simultaneously being shaped by the cinema. Sounds like a perfect role for Douglas, doesn’t it?

If one wanted to be glib, it could be said the film is the story of a phone call. In fact, it  starts with  a series of telephone calls, three to be exact and each one is rejected with something approaching relish. Three calls to three Hollywood figures, all of whom take pleasure in telling the party at the other end of the line to take a running jump. That guy at the other end of the line is Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), once a big-time producer but now reduced to hearing casual brush-offs across a long distance line. So we’ve got a good hook right here, you do tend to wonder why a man should be summarily dismissed in this fashion. Curiosity is such that we want to know what a man like this has to say, and by the end of the picture those on the screen clearly share this feeling too. In the meantime, we have the build-up, where studio executive Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) tries to persuade the director (Barry Sullivan), the leading lady (Lana Turner) & the writer (Dick Powell) to at least take Shields’ call and give their collective answer on whether or not they are prepared to work with him one more time.  So, this trio gathers in Pebbel’s office while he, through flashbacks, recalls the way their lives and careers became entwined with that of Shields, and why they feel the way they do about him.

 Hollywood thrives on narcissism, it loves to look at itself and can’t resist encouraging us to look at it while it indulges in this introspection. You could say that’s indicative of the all-consuming vanity of the movies, the conviction that audiences will be fascinated by the chance to peek behind the cameras and glimpse the artists and technicians at work and play, that there’s no drama as compelling as the everyday lives of the filmmakers themselves. And I guess they’re right, there’s always been a market for celebrity watching and this has shown no sign of abating any time soon, if anything it’s more intense than ever these days. We sometimes hear about stripping away the glamor but the classic Hollywood exposés didn’t really do that, sure they showed the less savory side of the business and those involved in it but even so they couldn’t help making it look good. As the title of this film suggests, there are some rotten people on screen but they and the world they inhabit remain beautiful and captivating. The Oscar-winning Charles Schnee screenplay focuses on the ruthlessness, the lack of scruples of Shields, the way he’s consistently used and manipulated his colleagues to attain success. Yet, for all that, despite the duplicity and the betrayals, the milieu holds our attention and we’re never allowed to forget that Shields brought success even to those he hurt.

Director Vincente Minnelli clearly enjoyed turning the cameras around since he, and Douglas, would return to the theme 10 years later when they made Two Weeks in Another Town, again scripted by Schnee and produced by John Houseman. He’s always going to be best remembered for his musicals but it has to be said he had a marvelous talent for well-judged melodrama – this movie, the aforementioned Two Weeks in Another Town, Home from the Hill and the dazzling Some Came Running are significant artistic achievements and add up to a highly impressive mini-filmography by themselves.

 Kirk Douglas was second billed in The Bad and the Beautiful behind Lana Turner and earned himself his second Oscar nomination. He didn’t win (losing out to Gary Cooper in High Noon that year) and claims in his autobiography to have been surprised by the nomination, believing his roles in Wyler’s Detective Story or Wilder’s Ace in the Hole were more worthy of such an honor. I think this says something about the way Douglas views his own work, seeming to prefer the more driven and less sympathetic parts. While there is much to dislike about Jonathan Shields, it’s said that Minnelli worked on Douglas to bring out the nicer side of the character and tone down the more explosive and less likeable aspects. Which is not to say he doesn’t explode at any point – he does have two fairly intense, in-your-face scenes opposite Lana Turner, but it probably wouldn’t feel like a proper Kirk Douglas film if they weren’t there.

Lana Turner wasn’t an actress who ever impressed me all that much, meaning she was always someone you noticed in a movie (her looks kind of demand that) but whose roles were frequently less memorable, with a few notable exceptions. I think The Bad and the Beautiful ranks as one such exception. The fact she was playing an insecure, alcohol dependent star was an advantage as it required a degree of fragility and vulnerability that Turner was able to convey successfully. In terms of awards though, the big winner among the actresses was Gloria Grahame, who scooped the Oscar for best supporting actress. Grahame was a terrific screen presence, sexy and credible in just about everything I’ve seen her in. Her part in this film is a small one, confined to the section with Dick Powell, yet she doesn’t waste a moment of the time she has. Powell was fine too as her cynical husband, adding an intellectual spin to the kind of insolence he had down pat by this stage. I generally like Barry Sullivan, he was one of those guys who could be a hero or villain (or even something in between) quite effortlessly. He was good enough as the director who sees his idea stolen but it’s an undemanding and perhaps a bit of a thankless part under the circumstances. And there’s plenty of depth in the cast – Walter Pidgeon, Leo G Carroll, Gilbert Roland and Paul Stewart all make contributions.

 This is a movie where some people like to see if they can pick which cinema personality each of the main characters was based on – Douglas’ lead appears to be a composite of sorts with the characteristics of at least two producers (one of whom is a cult favorite) on view. Of the others, some are pretty obvious (Lana Turner’s part, for example) while others (like Barry Sullivan) are less so. I won’t go naming any names here – it might spoil a little bit of the fun for some and anyway the curious can easily search online for clues/opinions. That’s just trivial stuff though, the movie provides a masterclass in professionalism and polish where there’s next to nothing to fault in the direction, writing, photography (another Oscar there for Robert Surtees) and acting. The Bad and the Beautiful is an extremely smooth and classy piece of filmmaking, Hollywood writing its own lore and having a good time doing it. The film is easy to find and looks good too, at least my old Warner Brothers DVD does. Viewed for the first or the fiftieth time, it still satisfies.

It’s a rare thing to be able to post something on the occasion of the 100th birthday of a living screen legend, a bona fide star of the Golden Age of cinema, and it gives me a real kick to be able to do so on the day Kirk Douglas hits three figures – congratulations to him and may he see many more.

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Jeopardy

You’re smart… honest. I like smart women. They got cat in ’em.

Current trends in cinema indicate that audiences prefer ever-increasing running times, or at least the major studios seem to interpret it that way. In terms of minutes spent in front of the screen, you could definitely say you’re getting your money’s worth out of a movie these days. But is it really possible to reduce the worth of a movie, or any piece of art for that matter, to such crude terms? I’m fine with long films if the story or its telling merits the added time. The problem though is that this is rarely the case; simple stories are padded to the point they lose their edge, and true epics no longer as potent. It wasn’t always so. Once upon a time filmmakers knew that quality and quantity were not equal partners, that it was unnecessary to tie them together in a marriage of inconvenience. Today, let’s look at Jeopardy (1953), a movie that does all it needs to do in under seventy minutes.

There’s something wholesome and reassuring about family vacations, especially the hard-earned ones. Doug Stilwin (Barry Sullivan), along with his wife Helen (Barbara Stanwyck) and their young son Bobby (Lee Aaker), are driving south to get away from it all the stresses and strains of life. They’re heading to Mexico, to a deserted fishing cove Doug remembers visiting with an old army buddy, and everything seems right with the world. As they cross the border and move away from the big towns Helen’s narration catches some of the optimistic flavor of the early 50s – there’s an air of domestic contentment, but there’s an edge to her voice at times that warns of a tale which will take a twist before it runs its course. We get the odd hint of an undercurrent of tension  – Doug doesn’t like being told what to do and Helen is obviously not a woman to be undervalued – but the first real sense of danger comes when the family encounters a police roadblock. The reason for the spot check becomes apparent later. For the time being, things couldn’t be better – Doug finds his secluded beach and the family settle down to relax in glorious solitude. However, to borrow from another noir narrator, fate has put its finger on this particular group of people. While exploring the old jetty, Bobby gets his foot stuck in the decaying timbers and his father has to go and free him. It’s at this point that everything, quite literally, falls apart. The upshot is that Doug finds himself trapped in the shallows by a fallen pile, and the tide is rising. With all attempts to extricate him coming to nothing, Doug convinces Helen to drive back to the last settlement they passed in search of help. Reluctantly, she does so, leaving Bobby behind to keep him company. What she encounters though is Lawson (Ralph Meeker), the object of the aforementioned police dragnet. As the water level rises, and Helen’s sense of desperation matches it, we learn exactly how far a woman is prepared to go to save the life of the man she loves.

I’ve commented before on how there’s something very attractive about John Sturges’ work in the 50s, which is not to say I dislike the bigger, and more ambitious films he made in the years to come. I feel he was at his best in the 50s though; there’s a tightness, a kind of taut economy, in his filmmaking during that period. Jeopardy is a straightforward and direct story – there’s no explanation of who Lawson is or what precisely he’s wanted for, but a handful of telling shots let the audience know all that’s necessary about his character and the things he’s capable of. Time is of the essence for the man trapped on the beach, and Sturges never once lets go of that sense of urgency. The almost constant use of motion – the crashing waves, Helen’s chaotic drive to the settlement, and Lawson’s similarly frantic journey back – offer no respite from the tension. Not a moment is wasted, nor a word uttered superfluously. In visual terms, Sturges was as fine an exponent of the wide screen process as it’s been my pleasure to see. While this film was framed for, or at least is presented in, Academy ratio, the director’s spatial awareness and composition is always in evidence. The high, objectifying angles increase the sense of isolation of the characters in a barren and hostile environment, and the close-ups catch every twitch of emotion on their faces.

Barbara Stanwyck was in her mid-40s when she made Jeopardy, and showing few signs of relinquishing her grip on leading roles. By this stage she’d had plenty of experience playing tough broads who knew their way round the world and were capable of giving as good as they got. Unlike similarly strong actresses like Bette Davis or, more especially, Joan Crawford, whom I often find off-putting, Stanwyck retained that toughness without descending into hardness. While she worked in a variety of genres, there was an edge and earthiness which made her a good fit for westerns and thrillers. Jeopardy gave her top billing and plenty to get her teeth into – the painful decisions circumstances have forced her into making are never shied away from and her reactions to them remain entirely credible. Barry Sullivan would go on to make another two movies with Stanwyck – most notably Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns – and he worked well with her on screen. The film has no shortage of high drama and thus needed a strong, stable presence to anchor it all. Sullivan is very good as the man used to taking charge and calling the shots, who’s reduced to helplessness. Even so he’s stoic throughout, and his interaction with Lee Aaker (who also appeared in Hondo the same year) is genuinely touching at times. Just the other day I saw Ralph Meeker described, not at all disparagingly, as “a poor man’s Brando”, and I can see how that could be the case. He had the kind of brutal machismo that made him a terrific and interesting Mike Hammer a few years later in Kiss me Deadly, and he has ample opportunity to show that off here. I think it’s also worth noting that even in a film as lean and pared down as Jeopardy, Meeker’s character still has the chance to earn redemption by the end.

Jeopardy was released on DVD in the US some years ago as part of a Stanwyck box set, and the disc was also available individually. It shares that disc space with To Please a Lady, and the transfer is quite good. The print is generally sharp, clean and without damage. The theatrical trailer is provided as an extra along with the radio adaptation of the story. I’m very partial to sparse, brisk storytelling, even more so nowadays as it seems to have become something of a lost art; men like John Sturges knew how to do it well, and Jeopardy is a solid example of that.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Poster

When I started this series of reviews about a month ago I mentioned that one of the reasons why I’d avoided doing it for a time was the variable quality of the films involved. Being aware that you’re going to have to sit through and then try to express your thoughts on movies that you already know are mediocre can be a little discouraging. What I didn’t mention, however, was the fact that the opposite is also true. When a film has a particularly strong critical reputation it’s equally daunting, though for different reasons of course. You instinctively wonder whether it’s possible to say anything that hasn’t been said before, and probably been said better. In the case of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Sam Peckinpah’s last western, I don’t promise to offer any startling insights but I do hope that I manage to at least express my own personal appreciation of this flawed masterpiece.

The film can, and I think should, be viewed as the death dream of Pat Garrett as he relives the defining events of his life, even as that life is slipping away. I ought to say right now that this view is dependent on the version of the film that’s watched – I’ll explain what I mean later, but for now I will simply say that it does have an impact on the way viewers approach the story. It’s 1909 and an aging and testy Garrett (James Coburn) is riding a wagon through New Mexico. His terse, snappish conversation with his companions is violently interrupted by the crack of a rifle shot. No sooner has the first bullet struck home than Garrett’s escort proceed to empty their own weapons into his mortally wounded body. As the old lawman tumbles towards the earth for the last time the scene is intercut with events of almost 30 years before, in 1881, when we see Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) getting in a bit of target practice by shooting the heads off live chickens. What follows sets up the mood of the rest of the film and explains the motives for the characters subsequent actions. Garrett has sensed that the wind has changed and is pragmatic enough to know that he must go with it or be swept away. He’s thrown in his lot with a shadowy collection of big cattle men and business interests, and has been appointed sheriff. The Kid, on the other hand, resolutely refuses to bow to the march of progress and is bent on continuing as he’s always done. Garrett points out that part of his remit is to ensure the removal, by whatever means are deemed necessary, of the Kid from the territory. This is one of the few times both men share the screen until their final fateful meeting in Fort Sumner, but the movie charts the movements of both as circumstances inexorably draw them to their predetermined positions. That early scene in the cantina where Garrett and the Kid lay their cards on the table and both are aware that they will have to face off sooner or later is full of the melancholy that dominates the picture, and it’s pure Peckinpah. From this point the hunt is on. Garrett brings the Kid in after a bloody shootout at an isolated shack and has him locked up in Lincoln to await execution. This leads to a wonderfully realized sequence in the stark jail room where the Kid’s flippant disregard for authority (both earthly and divine) goads his manic, evangelical guard Ollinger (R G Armstrong) into taunting and threatening him – again depending on which version you watch there’s a killer line that may be missed. When the Kid effects his escape after blasting Ollinger apart with his own shotgun there’s a very human side of him revealed. He swaggers along the main street and orders up a horse to take him out of town. What he’s presented with is a wild animal that promptly bucks him clear and lands him square on his ass. Instead of avenging his bruised dignity on the old Mexican who embarrassed him by offering a horse he couldn’t ride, he simply smiles ruefully, steals another and rides coolly off as befits a legend.

Changing times - James Coburn as Pat Garrett.

In truth, the whole film could be viewed as a series of memorable scenes. That’s not to say, of course, that there’s a lack of narrative structure; the story follows a very definite line and draws to a completely natural conclusion. What I’m trying to say is that there are certain characteristics that mark it out as a western that transcends the run-of-the-mill and elevate it to something grander. A prime example is the segment with Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado – it moves things forward by showing how Garrett’s pursuit is progressing but that’s not really the point. If anything, like one of Ford’s grace notes, the scene exists for the sake of its own beauty and and poignancy. I’m not going to spoil things for anyone who has yet to see the movie but I will say that it’s gut wrenching stuff and I’ve still never been able to watch it without a lump in my throat. The characters grow and develop as we move along too, especially Garrett. His cynicism and self-loathing increase the closer he comes to his quarry and the further he moves from the man he once was. By the end of the movie he has sold himself completely and his disgust at what he has become is a painful thing to witness. It’s also interesting to compare the portrayal of Garrett’s principal backer, Chisum (Barry Sullivan), to the one John Wayne offered a few years before. This is no heroic defender of the common man, instead he’s a coldly dedicated businessman who feels no sentimental attachment to those who worked for him in the past. This Chisum regards Billy as nothing more than a liability, both financially and politically, who needs to be exterminated. Those hands in his employ are shown to be similarly heartless, and it’s surely clear to Garrett that he’s only being tolerated so long as he has a role to play in Chisum’s schemes. In contrast to Garrett, the character of the Kid undergoes less of a change, perhaps because he’s the one who clings more firmly to the old ways. He starts out grinning, nonchalant and oozing self-confidence, and meets his fate with that attitude virtually intact. However, for all his free spirited charm there’s a hard edge there too. The first time I saw the film I was slightly shocked at the outcome of the duel that the Kid and Alamosa Bill (Jack Elam) are unable to avoid. Having said that, I’ve grown to appreciate that little scene more and more for showing that shootouts in the old west were rarely the kind of honourable and noble standoffs that they’re traditionally portrayed as.

A man out of time - Kris Kristofferson as the Kid.

As I stated earlier, this was to be Peckinpah’s last western and it’s another of his ruminations on the passing of the old west and the dawn of the modern era. It was a troubled production, not least because of the director’s increasingly wayward behaviour, and the end product reflects that in the multiple cuts of the movie down the years. For all that though, it remains very much a Peckinpah film. It’s tempting to think that Sam saw something of himself in both the title characters: the Kid as the wild, anti-establishment figure that he encouraged others to see him as, and Garrett as the disillusioned independent trying to strike some kind of working balance between corporate interests and a free soul that was probably closer to the truth. As such, I think it’s Coburn’s performance as Garrett that drives the film and gives it much of its power. In terms of realism or accuracy he was too old for the part, but in terms of characterization he was perfect. He was of an age where you can easily understand a man’s need to seek out some form of security, that point when you realize that the recklessness of the past is no longer a viable option yet a part of you still yearns for it and rails against the advance of time and the compromises that are involved. Coburn’s lived-in features and grey hair help to get the point across, and the expressive eyes that could flash cold steel one minute and sardonic humour the next see that it strikes home. In contrast, Kristofferson plays the Kid as a devil may care adventurer, but one with a deep sense of fatalism. Even in that early scene in the cantina the twinkle in the eyes cannot disguise the fact that the Kid knows there and then, as surely as the grim faced Garrett does, that there can only be one outcome. Awareness is one thing of course, but the real fatalism is evident in the way the Kid only half-heartedly tries to elude his old friend. He heads for Mexico and safety but it’s clear enough that in so doing he’s hoping to find some excuse to return and play that one last card whatever the consequences. The supporting cast is something like a wish list of western character players and it’s another of the film’s great strengths. I don’t know how this works for those who come to the film without a familiarity with the genre, but for someone like myself it’s akin to meeting up again with a group of old acquaintances and simply revelling in their company. It would be impossible to go through all the people who drift in and out of the story and enrich it with their presence but, as I noted earlier, a special mention must be given to Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado who contribute to one of the finest moments in this picture, or any other for that matter. The only casting decision that doesn’t really work for me is the inclusion of Bob Dylan. I love the way his music blends in and complements the images on screen but his appearance as a character in the story is unnecessary in my opinion and is just too conspicuous.

The DVD release of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, not unlike the production itself, has become a source of controversy. Ever since Peckinpah’s clashes with MGM boss James Aubrey led to the movie being taken away from him and hacked down into a theatrical version that he hated there has been no real director’s cut available. The closest thing is the Turner Preview version, derived from Peckinpah’s workprint. The 2-disc DVD from Warners includes both the Turner version and a new 2005 Special Edition that claims to come closer to the director’s wishes. Now the problem is that the 2005 cut adds some material but, most damagingly, removes or alters key scenes and lines of dialogue from the Turner version – the exact changes can easily be found by running an internet search or just sitting down and watching the two cuts to compare for yourself. The fact that both versions are available is good of course, but it should be mentioned that the Turner cut has not undergone restoration whereas the 2005 one has. My own preference is for the Turner version for a variety of reasons, but the strongest one is the fact that the bookending of the story remains intact. Others will have to decide for themselves. Aside from the restoration, or lack of it, the DVD set contains a plethora of supplementary material that’s most welcome. As for the movie, I hope it’s clear that I hold it in high regard. It’s not only a compelling story, but it’s also a study of fading dreams, vanished innocence and bitter regrets. It’s one of Peckinpah’s best and should rate high in any list of top westerns. Very highly recommended.