Thursday, September 22, 2005

Having fallen in love again with Bonjour Tristesse, I decided to see some more Otto Preminger films, and so I recently rented Whirlpool and Advise & Consent.

Whirlpool is solid movie, but really kind of silly. It's not really a noir (as I was led to believe), but it had noir moments. It was one of those Freud-influenced films of the 40s where the mystery is in someone's (in this case, Tierney's) mind. Jose Ferrer plays a charlatan quack with the power of hypnosis who preys on the rich wife of a famous "legit" psychotherapist. (She's too ashamed to go to her husband for help.) She does his bidding unknowingly and is framed for a crime. Richard Conte was a bit miscast as the husband (even Schickel acknowledged). Constance Collier, that excellent character actress who was in Stage Door among many other films, had a small part (at first I thought it was Martita Hunt again). Not my cup of tea but done well, for what it was. Reminded me of Spellbound and Notorious, two Hitchcock films I don't particularly care for and, guess what? Ben Hecht wrote (or co-wrote) all three. In Richard Schickel's commentary for the film, he pointed out how extensive and impressive Hecht's career was, so I decided I'll refrain from judging Hecht prematurely. These ideas were taken seriously at the time, and Hecht certainly put the ideas to interesting use. Besides, the most susbstantial theme of the film is the danger that secrets pose to a marriage (or any close relationship)--when you need that person the most, those secrets or lies can widen a gulf of mistrust. Of course, it all works out for the best here in a tidy way, the villain dead, the heroes' hands clean.

Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.

Advise & Consent was complex and interesting, very timely with the current vacancies of the Supreme Court. Yet it was also stuffy and serious, "important" in that showy way that journalists love. A trailer included on the DVD made clear it was also a major event in its day, the adaptation of a controversial bestselling novel, and members of Congress showed up to watch some of the shoot. I have to admit up front that I'm not a Henry Fonda fan. He's as flat and dull an actor as Hollywood ever made a hero of, and, thankfully, though his character is central to the story, his screen time is relatively limited. The script concerns an ailing but respected president's controversial choice for Secretary of State and the battle that ensues among two factions of his own majority party. Charles Laughton handily portrays a fat, gentlemanly, Southern senator of great power who opposes the nomination, and Walter Pidgeon is the majority leader who fights for the president's choice. (He reminded me of an older Walter Cronkite.) Pidgeon taps up-and-comer Don Murray to head up the hearing committee, which pisses off a more senior and ambitious young senator played George Grizzard, surely (and weirdly) the most vicious pacifist character ever portrayed. He's constantly seen with a silent group of egghead henchman, and he eventually blackmails Murray over a homosexual relationship long over and deep in his past--he's now an idealized, heterosexual family man. In fact, there is a sequence set in a seedy gay bar, said to be the first depiction of such a place by the Hollywood industry. The film quietly draws a central parallel between Murray and Fonda: Murray's character isn't gay, but in his youth he flirted with gay life; Fonda's character isn't a communist, but in his youth he flirted with communism. Both, in other words, came to the "correct" stances in maturity, and so the story implies that anyone who is gay (or communist) is immature and, certainly, much worse: unfit for public office or any kind of upright life. On the other hand, the dirty pacifist New England senator is shunned by the rest of the senate for his actions, bringing the conservative senator and more liberal majority leader together. I took this as a tepid gesture of anti-McCarthyism, but I'm not sure. However, the whole struggle for the nominee becomes absolutely moot at the last minute, due to a last-minute plot twist.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Song: "Ocean Man" by Ween

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