Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Films by Ernst Lubitsch and Douglas Sirk

Friday was the first day of Cinémathèque Busan's nearly month-long program of films by Ernst Lubitsch and Douglas Sirk, two German directors who made it big in Hollywood but otherwise have little in common. I've seen six films so far, some brilliant, all of interest, and among those yet to screen, I can recommend Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942), and Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1959). The quality of the prints varies dramatically, and three Sirk films (all pre-1954) are being screened on 16mm.

The first film I saw, Sirk's inexplicably titled Shockproof (1949), is a deterministic melodrama about a female ex-con falling back into her old habits. Its social agenda and overall structure recall Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once (1937), but there are some striking differences between the two. Here, the heroine, Jenny Marsh/Patricia Knight, didn't actually commit the crime she went to prison for but took the rap in order to protect her boyfriend, Harry Wesson/John Baragrey, a professional gambler. Rather than being driven to crime by economic desperation, her biggest problem is having lousy friends. She's only out of jail a few days when she and Harry are picked up in a bookie joint in violation of her parole. But rather than sending her back to prison, Jenny's eccentric parole officer, Griff Marat/Cornel Wilde, forbids her to see Harry and gets her a job looking after his own blind mother so he can keep an eye on her. In other words, like Mark/Sean Connery in Hitchcock's Marnie (1964), he tries to make an honest woman of her. Soon she's even cooking dinner for him like a "normal, decent" housewife. The script by Helen Deutsch and Samuel Fuller has plenty of twists, and Sirk's elegant mise en scéne helps to elevate the material, but the happy ending is so unconvincing that I can only hope it was imposed unwillingly on the filmmakers by the studio.

Made just before the implementation of the Hays Code, Lubitsch's Design for Living (1933) is as striking for its frank attitude about sex as it is dated in its sexual politics. On a train bound from Marseilles to Paris, Gilda/Miriam Hopkins, a successful commercial artist, meets Tom/Fredric March, an unsuccessful painter, and his flatmate George/Gary Cooper, an unproduced playwright, and soon after falls in love with both. Rather than break-up the boys' friendship, Gilda makes a gentlemen's agreement with them--"No sex"--and resigns herself to become "a mother of the arts," helping them to improve their craft and achieve fame. "My career doesn't matter," she announces at the outset. This is certainly enjoyable, but I wouldn't call it one of Lubitsch's best (for one thing, Tom and George are interchangable Jules and Jim types); its over-inflated reputation as a classic has more to do with the prestige of the Noel Coward play it's based on than its merit as a film.

Sirk's Written on the Wind (1956) has a three act structure with a turning point--which is basically just another act break. Notwithstanding the credit sequence, the first part of the movie is set in New York and Miami, and establishes Mitch Wayne/Rock Hudson's goal of marrying Lucy Moore/Lauren Bacall. Kyle Hadley/Robert Stack, a bazillionaire playboy and Mitch's childhood friend, functions as an antagonist who tries to lure Lucy away. The second part of the film begins with Lucy arriving in Texas after marrying Kyle in an offscreen ceremony. The turning point is Kyle's discovery that he's sterile which drives him to drink. The last part of the film is a perfunctory courtroom sequence in which Marylee Hadley/Dorothy Malone, Kyle's sister who's loved Mitch since childhood, tries to have him framed for Kyle's murder. She breaks down on the witness stand and tells the truth, which is totally inconsistant with her character. The film ends with Mitch and Lucy kissing as they get in the car to leave the Hadley estate forever.

The film divides these characters into symmetrical sets of Decent (Lucy and Mitch) and Indecent (Kyle and Marylee), associating decency with pragmatism. While Mitch gets around in a black company car, Kyle and Marylee are both associated with brightly painted convertibles. When Mitch meets Lucy in the film's second sequence, she's working in the advertising department at the Hadley Oil Company in Manhattan. Mitch is in town with Kyle, who flew in on a whim on his private plane. Mitch invites her to lunch, and when they arrive at the restaurant, Kyle is in the company of two floozies. As they're leaving, he attempts to give Mitch the slip and drives Lucy to the airport. Mitch magically gets there ahead of them, but Lucy isn't that sort of girl, anyway. In Miami, Kyle presents her with a lavish hotel room with a closet full of fur coats. But when he shows up for their date that evening, he finds that she's gone. "Lucy, are you decent?" he asks walking into the bedroom. "I guess she was." Earlier, the very fact that she favors Kyle raises doubts in Mitch's mind about her decency. "Are you looking for laughs or are you soul searching?" Kyle is only sympathetic in his desire to have a family. After he marries Lucy, he becomes temporarily decent and stops drinking. Marylee, who shows no desire to have a family, isn't sympathetic at all. Describing Mitch to one of the floozies, Kyle says, "He's eccentric. He's poor," but the movie suggests the opposite: Lucy and Mitch are normal, and Kyle and Marylee (who does less soul searching than anyone) are rich weirdos.

Adapted from William Faulkner's "Pylon" (which I haven't read), and set in Depression-era New Orleans, Sirk's The Tarnished Angels (1958) is about a straight-laced journalist, Burke Devlin/Hudson who's drawn to a family of flying daredevils that live like gypsies: hot shot pilot, Roger Schumann/Stack, his wife LaVerne/Malone, the mechanic, Jiggs/Jack Carson, and Roger and LaVerne's illiterate son, Jack/Chris Olsen. Burke's interest in them is never strictly professional and continues well after he's fired from the paper. When Roger's plane is damaged in an accident, the only person who can get him another one in time for the next day's race is a local businessman, Matt Ord/Robert Middleton, and Roger asks LaVerne to pay him a visit to persuade him, which she agrees to. For all the differences in period, milieu and tone, the emotional dynamic here is much the same as it was in Written on the Wind: Burke is in love with Roger's wife, but here LaVerne is neither a saint like Lucy Moore nor a whore like Marylee Hadley. Photographed in black-and-white and 'Scope with dramatic, high contrast lighting, the film is particularly striking for its mise en scène. Notice how Sirk moves his actors around the set rather than having them stand still while delivering lines at one another. It's at once Sirk's most compelling film and his most stylish.

Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (1940) is set almost entirely inside a gift shop in Budapest where every business relationship doubles as a personal one. (I suspect we never see the boss' wife because their relationship is strictly personal.) The two main narrative threads involve Alfred Kralik/Jimmy Stewart's relationship with the boss, Hugo Matuschek/Frank Morgen, and a new employee, Klara Novak/Margaret Sullavan, which run parallel to one another. Mr. Kralik--the characters always address each other by their last names--is the store's oldest employee and he's often invited to Mr. Matuschek's home for dinner with Mrs. Matuscheck. But when Mr. Matuschek begins to suspect that Mr. Kralik's having an affair with his wife, Mr. Kralik finds himself suddenly out of work. (Mr. Matuschek hires a private detective whose manner is entirely businesslike.) Earlier in the film, Kralik gets off on the wrong foot with Ms. Novak, each unaware that they've been corresponding anonymously through the mail for several months and plan to marry. They agree to meet at a café, but Mr. Kralik, who's just lost his job, doesn't tell her he's the one who wrote her the letters. Thinking she's been stood up, Ms. Novak falls ill at the same time Mr. Matuschek attempts suicide, and Mr. Kralik pays a visit to each. Anxieties about the Depression hang over the characters. The film contrasts Mr. Kralik, who stands up to Mr. Matuschek on business matters, with Mr. Pirovitch/Felix Bressart, who has a family to feed and runs away any time Mr. Matuschek asks his employees for their opinion. There's a moving scene, after Mr. Kralik is fired, in which Mr. Pirovitch cautiously asks Mr. Matuschek to reconsider. Written by Lubitsch's usual screenwriter, Sam Raphelson, it's typical of their best work for the way it brings out depths of feeling in seemingly light hearted material.

To be continued...


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  2. She breaks down on the witness stand and tells the truth, which is totally inconsistant with her character.

    Not really. Actually, it's perfect. Marylee liked Mitch more than any of the other characters. Hell, she's in love with him. It was not that surprising that she would react with resentment toward his feelings for Lucy by hinting he may have murdered Kyle. And considering how she really felt about him, it was not surprising that she would eventually absolve him. If it had been anyone else but Mitch facing murder charges (like Lucy), she would have lied and allowed that person to hang.