Friday, September 18, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)

Singin' in the Rain (1952) might be the most popular of Gene Kelly's musical films, but An American in Paris (1951) proved his biggest Oscar success. The Best Picture Winner, directed by Vincente Minnelli, took home six Academy Awards in all, including wins for Best Musical Score and Best Color Cinematography. Although it lacks the more robust, developed narratives of Singin' in the Rain and On the Town (1949), An American in Paris offers plenty of Kelly's energetic artistry as a dancer, with a memorable performance from Oscar Levant and a charming debut by Leslie Caron. Songs from George and Ira Gershwin, as well as a screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner, make this picture particularly popular with musical types, while the climactic ballet is a highlight for those devoted to the art of dance.

Kelly plays aspiring American painter Jerry Mulligan, who stays on in Paris after World War II to practice his art. There he catches the attention of the wealthy Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), who offers to sponsor Jerry but also has designs of a more romantic kind. When Jerry falls for a young French girl named Lise (Leslie Caron), Milo becomes jealous, but Jerry doesn't know that Lise is already engaged to Henri (Georges Guetary), a popular singer who took her in during the war.

Kelly's charisma carries the lightweight narrative, although he's in a more sentimental mood here than in his other best known roles. The funniest scenes pair him with Oscar Levant's character, the perpetual scholarship musician Adam Cook, who provides a link between Jerry and his unknown romantic rival, Henri. Jerry and Henri form a lovers' triangle with Lise, while Jerry finds himself in a second triangle with Lise and Milo. The two parallel situations reveal the double standard for men's and women's behavior, since Jerry pursues Lise with relentless attention but balks when Milo treats him the same way. Of course, Jerry will get what he wants eventually, but the story cuts Milo out of its ending, leaving us to wonder how Jerry's influential sponsor reacts to his defection. Leslie Caron is much too young, at nineteen, to be a credible love interest, but she shines in the dances and looks especially lovely at the artists' ball, where she appears like a fairy princess with stars in her hair and a white ballet gown.

Ultimately, it's not the story that really matters in An American in Paris. This is a musical with the emphasis firmly on its song and dance. Jerry's performance of "I Got Rhythm" with a group of French children is an entertaining highlight early in the picture, and the "By Strauss" number features a great combination of the distinct talents of Kelly, Levant, and Georges Guetary. The most important sequence, however, is the American in Paris ballet, which puts Leslie Caron's skill as a ballerina to particularly good use. The long musical piece transports viewers through a romantic fantasy of Paris and its art, including some memorable recreations of paintings by Manet, Utrillo, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Caron even appears in costume as Jane Avril, the can-can dancer who inspired Toulouse-Lautrec's most iconic work. Kelly also adopts a number of striking costumes for this sequence, most notably a very fitted white outfit that highlights his muscular dancer's physique. The ballet dominates the final segment of the film, with no dialogue and only a single concluding scene to bring us back to the narrative frame, but for those who most value Gene Kelly as a dancer it's the quintessential moment of his screen career. 

For more musicals from Vincente Minnelli, try Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Band Wagon (1953), and Gigi (1958), for which he won an Oscar for Best Director. Gene Kelly also stars in Cover Girl (1944), Anchors Aweigh (1945), and Brigadoon (1954). Leslie Caron is best remembered for Gigi, but you'll also find her in Lili (1953), Daddy Long Legs (1955), and Father Goose (1964). See Oscar Levant in Romance on the High Seas (1948), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), and The Band Wagon (1953), and catch Nina Foch in Executive Suite (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Spartacus (1960).

Friday, September 11, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: BORN TO KILL (1947)

The illustrious Robert Wise directs Born to Kill (1947), a sharp, smart noir drama that showcases the considerable talents of Claire Trevor as its morally ambivalent protagonist. It's an early foray into the genre for Wise, who would go on to direct The Set-Up (1949) and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) before moving to Oscar winning projects like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). Unlike those more famous musicals, Born to Kill allows Wise to explore some truly dark territory, and it provides interesting gender reversals of several noir tropes, with Trevor's character in the sway of Lawrence Tierney's menacing homme fatal. Memorable supporting performances from Walter Slezak, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Esther Howard also make this taut crime story worth seeking out, with Isabel Jewell making a brief but pivotal appearance as the good-time girl whose bad behavior sets the plot in motion.

Claire Trevor stars as the newly divorced Helen, who concludes her stay in Reno by discovering a pair of corpses and then skipping town without informing the police. On the train back to San Francisco, she meets the attractive but overbearing Sam (Lawrence Tierney), who makes overtures to Helen but then rapidly marries her wealthy foster sister, Georgia (Audrey Long). Neither Helen's engagement to Fred (Phillip Terry) nor Sam's marriage can cool their lust for each other, even though Helen begins to suspect that Sam is the murderer who left those bodies behind. Meanwhile, a private detective (Walter Slezak) hired by a friend of the dead woman arrives in San Francisco to investigate Sam's involvement in the crime, and Helen is torn between betraying Sam and keeping his dangerous secrets.

Trevor's Helen takes the place of the usual noir anti-hero; like Walter Neff or Frank Chambers, she has a sliver of conscience to struggle against the dark impulses that dictate her fate. Ironically, of course, one of her few generous actions, that of returning a little dog to its home, leads her to find the bodies and make the far less laudable decision to leave town without telling the police. Helen doesn't want to get involved, but soon she's involved so deeply that she can't get out. She knows perfectly well what kind of man Sam is, but she can't resist him, even after he marries her innocent sister. Tierney's male seducer is more brutal than a classic femme fatale; he's always just a breath away from losing his temper and killing someone, although his friend, Marty (Elisha Cook, Jr.), tries to keep him under control. Noir fans will instantly see the irony of having Cook, so often cast as the unhinged type himself,  play the sane one of the pair, while Tierney is really terrifying in his role, and it's clear that he's the inspiration for the picture's title. Moreover, we understand that Helen is a fool to think she can manage him or even survive her entanglement in this compulsive killer's web.

Cook is probably the most familiar of the supporting players, thanks to his many noir roles, but Born to Kill offers several other performances worth noting. Walter Slezak, sounding just a little sketchy with his Austrian accent, plays the detective, Arnett, a slippery philosopher who might or might not have any morals at the bottom of his corpulent soul. Isabel Jewell vanishes too soon as Laury, the girl whose infidelity first pushes Sam over the edge, but she gives the character enough life to highlight Helen's cold self-interest and Mrs. Kraft's devotion. It's Esther Howard as the older woman who proves the scene-stealer of the picture; as the tragicomic Mrs. Kraft, she's brassy and worn, but probably the most deeply sympathetic character in the whole story. Her confrontation with Cook's murderous Marty turns up the tension to an almost unbearable degree, first by forcing us to watch her walk right into a trap and then by making her fight for her life with desperate courage. She's funny, crass, loyal, and utterly heartbreaking in her grief over Laury's untimely death, a perfect foil to Helen's pitiless refinement.

Be sure to note Tommy Noonan in an uncredited role as the bellboy who knows that Mrs. Kraft cheats at cards and Ellen Corby of The Waltons as one of the household maids. For more of Robert Wise's films from the 1940s, try The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945), both made under the oversight of horror maestro Val Lewton. Claire Trevor won a much-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Key Largo (1948), but you'll also find her in Stagecoach (1939), Murder, My Sweet (1944), and Raw Deal (1948). Lawrence Tierney plays bad guys like the title outlaw in Dillinger (1945) and Jesse James in Badman's Territory (1946) and Best of the Badmen (1951). Don't miss Walter Slezak in the Hitchcock thriller, Lifeboat (1944), in which he puts that accent to especially unnerving use. Esther Howard turns up regularly in Preston Sturges comedies, as well as Murder, My Sweet and Champion (1949). You might recognize Isabel Jewell from her role as Emmy Slattery in Gone with the Wind (1939), but she also appears in Marked Woman (1937), Lost Horizon (1937), and The Leopard Man (1943).