Archive for August, 2011

Hyde in Plain Sight

What I’ve Been Watching: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920).

Who’s Responsible: John S. Robertson (director), Clara S. Beranger (screenwriter), John Barrymore, Charles Lane, and Brandon Hurst (stars).

Why I Watched It: Remedial viewing.

Seen It Before? No.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 8.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 1.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 6.

And? This is one of the few films from the so-called Horror Classics 50-film boxed set (which we borrowed from my friend Tom) that is actually both horror and a classic, and on top of that, it’s one I’d never seen before. For some reason, this seminal genre movie did not seem to make the televised rounds in my misspent youth the way other such silent masterpieces as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari did, and as a result, I wasn’t even sure if it was available. So when the opportunity came to view it at last, after seeing stills from it in reference books oftentimes through the years, I was quite excited to do so, and given its age, I was surprised and impressed at how primitive the movie did not seem.

Reading up on this version of R.L. Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (one of several silent treatments that same year), I learned that just as Universal later did with Dracula and Frankenstein, Paramount drew on a stage adaptation as well as on the literary classic itself. In this case, that means the 1887 play by Thomas Russell Sullivan, from which Beranger apparently borrowed Dr. Jekyll’s engagement to Millicent (Martha Mansfield), daughter of Sir George Carew, and Hyde’s relationship with dance-hall girl Miss Gina (Nita Naldi). With name changes and other variations, these elements became staples of later versions, notably those starring Fredric March and Spencer Tracy.

Viewers familiar with those two iterations—with Tracy’s following the plot of March’s pretty closely, as I recall—will note that Gina is much less pivotal here, while Carew is far from the picture of moral rectitude embodied by Halliwell Hobbes or Donald Crisp. Hurst, who appeared in the silent adaptations of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Man Who Laughs, plays him as a hedonistic rake recalling Oscar Wilde’s Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The old reprobate scolds Jekyll for wasting time with his charity patients instead of experiencing the sensual side of life, and takes him to the music hall where he sees Gina, inspiring Jekyll to whip up that formula.

Barrymore was considered the foremost American actor of his generation, certainly as a Shakespearean, although I am less familiar with his screen work than that of his brother Lionel, who entered the BOF pantheon with It’s a Wonderful Life. “The Great Profile” was also regarded as one of the era’s most handsome men, so it is surprising not only to see him as Hyde, but also to realize that his first transformation was done in a single take, eschewing makeup, using only facial contortions. Having read about early filmgoers who were traumatized by seeing a train approaching the camera or a pistol fired directly at it, I can only imagine how the shots of Hyde lunging into the lens must have freaked ’em out.

It should be noted that the actor who plays Jekyll’s friend Dr. Richard Lanyon is not the ubiquitous Lane who worked for Barrymore’s Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. As his depravity progresses, Jekyll finds himself transforming without the formula—at one point, he “sees” a gigantic spider crawl up on his bed, signaling the change—and crosses the line irrevocably when he bludgeons Carew, who is suspicious about the link between Jekyll and the mysterious Hyde, to death with his cane. Unable to obtain more of a vital ingredient in his potion, a hopeless Jekyll poisons himself to protect Millicent from Hyde, and after seeing his dying friend change back, Lanyon preserves his reputation by announcing that Hyde killed him.

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Man with a Suitcase

What I’ve Been Watching: The Big Empty (2003).

Who’s Responsible: Steve Anderson (writer-director), Jon Favreau, Joey Lauren Adams, and Sean Bean (stars).

Why I Watched It: Quirk factor.

Seen It Before? No.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 6.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 5.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 7.

And? I’ve seen many films that were too weird for their own good, but Anderson’s first feature is one of the few that wasn’t quite weird enough…which isn’t to say that I didn’t like it, yet sometimes it’s preferable to go all the way with a Repo Man or Big Lebowski. It was a little strange watching Favreau, whom I’d enjoyed in indie fare such as Swingers and Made, while thinking that many younger viewers know him, if at all, as the director of Iron Man. Here, he’s failed actor John Person, whose deeply strange neighbor, Neely (Bud Cort), knows way too much about his personal life and offers him enough money to pay all his debts if he will deliver a mysterious blue suitcase, unopened, to a desert town.

Confiding in his other neighbor, Grace (Adams), a pretty girl in the glasses-and-hair-in-a-bun tradition, John heads for the appointed motel in Baker, where he manages to miss his notoriously volatile contact, Cowboy (who may be a serial killer), more than once. At a nearby bar, he meets the owner, Stella, who seems to be the only normal person around; when the credits came at the end I was shocked to see that the woman I’d struggled to i.d. behind her bangs was Daryl Hannah. The rest are a bunch of whack jobs spouting stories about alien abductions, but John’s most dangerous entanglement is with Stella’s daughter Ruthie (Rachael Leigh Cook), whose boyfriend Randy (Adam Beach) is a jealous psycho.

Things take a turn for the weirder when Grace calls to tell him that Neely has been killed and beheaded, which gives ominous significance to the bowling-ball bag Cowboy leaves for John with instructions that it, too, remain unopened. Soon, he is visited by FBI Agent Banks (an excellent Kelsey Grammer), an aspiring screenwriter who questions him about Neely, but John, fearing he will lose his pay-off, reveals nothing. When Cowboy appears at last, it is in the form of Sean Bean, who made a memorable Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring and had already burnished his mysterious-suitcase credentials in another BOF favorite, John Frankenheimer’s late-career classic Ronin, before donning his duster here.

The increasingly unhinged Randy, driven to distraction by John’s continued contact with Ruthie (which she usually initiates), steals the suitcase and abducts her, but although John recovers both at gunpoint, you know another encounter with a more permanent resolution is in the cards. Come to think of it, I guess it did get pretty weird by the end, which I will not spoil for you here, although not everything is spelled out unambiguously in any case. Between the title and the bowling motif, which comes to the fore in the last few minutes, I did wonder if Lebowski were an influence, but if so, Anderson borrows from the best, and either way, this is a quirky, engaging debut that bodes well for an interesting career.

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Moonlight Becomes You

What I’ve Been Watching: Moonlight Mile (2002).

Who’s Responsible: Brad Silberling (writer-director), Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, and Susan Sarandon (stars).

Why I Watched It: Cast & premise.

Seen It Before? No.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 7.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 4.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 8.

And? The first thing that surprised me about this film, which concerns the relationship between Gyllenhaal and the parents of his slain fiancée, Hoffman and Sarandon, was its initially serio-comic tone. Make no mistake, it is ultimately a drama, not a comedy, and an affecting one at that, but given the set-up, I was expecting more of an angst-fest. Very little in Silberling’s list of credits would have made me watch this if I had known he was behind it; he mostly directed (but, perhaps significantly, did not write) episodes of series I never saw, although his features include City of Angels, which—despite starring Nicolas Cage and being a remake of a movie by Wim Wenders, whom I greatly admire—I liked.

It is 1973 in Marblehead, Massachusetts, where Joe Nast (Gyllenhaal) had moved in with Ben (Hoffman) and Jojo Floss (Sarandon), and planned to go into commercial realty with Ben once he married their daughter, Diana. Tragedy intervened when Diana was killed in a diner by a gunman whose target was his estranged wife, now comatose with two bullets in her head and expected by attorney Mona Camp (Holly Hunter) to testify against him if and when she recovers. As they await the trial, Ben proposes that they go ahead with the original plans as best they can, making Joe his partner in a development deal with Mike Mulcahey (Dabney Coleman) that requires the purchase of a whole block on Main Street.

While intercepting the wedding invitations before they are mailed, Joe meets Bertie Knox (Ellen Pompeo), who runs the town post office and also works at a local bar, Cal’s. Joe is already concealing one burdensome secret, i.e., that he and Diana had just called off their engagement, while still remaining friends, and that she was waiting at the diner to reveal this to Ben (whose office is across the street) when she was killed. Now, Joe’s growing attraction to Bertie gives him another secret to be kept from Ben and Jojo, and he is also reluctant to tell Bertie, who had a relationship with Cal—long MIA in Vietnam—that the sale of the bar is the linchpin of the development deal Ben hopes to seal with Mulcahey.

A longtime BOF favorite, Sarandon ably portrays the difficulty with which Jojo, a former alcoholic, deals with her grief and pursuant writer’s block, often lashing out at Ben, who tries desperately to channel his energies into their deal. Without another reliable witness, the case against the shooter is further jeopardized when his wife recovers and announces that she will testify on his behalf, stating that he had stopped taking his medications. By the time Mona puts Joe up on the witness stand in an effort to get Diana “into the room,” things seem so messed up for him that it appears they will never be put right; in real life, they often are not, but in a well-constructed screenplay like this one, they sometimes are.

There are so many different kinds of films, and by that I don’t mean simply the different genres; some are meant merely to entertain, others to enlighten, still others to make you feel something, and this one created in me a rich emotional stew. I couldn’t even put my finger on exactly why, but by the end I was crying and crying with tears that were neither happy nor sad, but both and neither, glad to be alive, glad to be in love. Silberling based the movie (dedicated to “all our loves…departed, or yet to be alive…”) partly on his own experiences after his actress girlfriend, Rebecca Schaeffer, was killed by an obsessed fan, and the deep reality of his feelings surely infused this with a special kind of effectiveness.

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