Two "Treasures from the Archives" at this year's London Film Festival

25 October 2011

Over the weekend I caught four of the films programmed by Clyde Jeavons - whose reliably knowledgeable and succinct introductions to each film infect you with that immediate sense of passion and history - as part of the Treasures from the Archives strand at this year's London Film Festival: The Caine Mutiny (1954), Cry Danger (1951), America America (1963) and Bye Bye Birdie (1963). Some observations on the first two follow, and there'll be a second post later in the week... 

The Caine Mutiny, restored from worn Technicolor originals by a team headed by Grover Crisp at Sony-Columbia (the production still accompanying the festival brochure's entry is black and white), makes a virtue of good casting and generally gets better as it goes on following a limp and plodding opening third.

Adapted by Stanley Roberts from Herman Wouk's 1952 Pulitzer-winner, the film stars Humphrey Bogart as Philip Francis Queeg, a US Navy veteran who assumes captaincy of an old creaky minesweeper, whose crew struggles to come to terms with his authoritarian approach. After Queeg proves indecisive at critical moments,  Lieutenant Steve Maryk (Van Johnson) and idealistic Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis) are encouraged by dubious wannabe author Lieutenant Keefer (Fred MacMurray) into opposing their captain with mutiny.

Less violent than legal, the mutiny comes during a typhoon when Maryk relieves Queeg of his command following the latter's refusal to make a decision that determines the fate of the ship. As a dramatic climax, the film provides a sequence in which Maryk is court-martialled and defended by Lieutenant Barney Greenwald (José Ferrer).

A fine ensemble cast moves the film throught its motions; MacMurray might have stolen it but for Ferrer's engrossing turn late in the film as a tough and understanding sympathiser of his mutinous defendant. Bogart cuts a sad and pathetic figure very well; there's a sequence, after MacMurray's catalysing conspirator puts forth a shoddy diagnosis of extreme paranoia, in which Queeg's orders to officers are met with visual cut-aways that suggest increasingly absurd misunderstandings on which we're in but on which the officers - from whose perspective the cut-aways are - are not. Climaxing in a scene that involves accounting for missing strawberries, this sequence - central to the film as a whole - provides comical overtones that make Bogart's agitated testimony in the court-martial all the more tragic.

To direct The Caine Mutiny, producer Stanley Kramer hired Edward Dmytryk, whose filmmaking career had now comparatively recovered following his blacklisting by the House Un-American Activities Committee as part of the "Hollywood Ten" in the late 1940s and subsequent brief imprisonment; following the latter, Dmytryk testified in a second round of anti-Communist hearings before HUAC and, in 1951, informed on other members of the American Communist Party. Among these was Adrian Scott, Dmytryk's friend and the producer of four of his previous films; as a result of Dmytryk's testimony, Scott never produced a feature film again.

Given its director's despicable self-preservationism, The Caine Mutiny's most interesting element is Fred MacMurray's character, whose decision to recant his own testimony places his colleague's actions at the mercy of a ruthless trial. Ferrer's Greenwald is right to declare him the real villain of the piece, with a great line too: "If you want to do anything about it I'll be outside; I'm a lot drunker than you so it'll be a fair fight." Indeed.

By coincidence, one of the four films Dmytryk made with Adrian Scott was Murder, My Sweet in 1944 - released in the UK as Farewell, My Lovely - which is notable for being the first film in which crooner Dick Powell played a serious tough guy (earlier that same year, Fred MacMurray had reinvented himself as a noir protagonist in Double Indemnity). Following success in similar roles - including 1945's Cornered, also produced by Scott and directed by Dmytryk - Powell was, by 1951, an unarguably dramatic actor, and it's his turn in Cry Danger that makes it a top-tier crime flick.

Cry Danger is a lean, mean noir in which Powell plays Rocky Mulloy, released from prison following a false alibi given by a stranger, Delong (Richard Erdman), hoping to be rewarded with a slice of the money he assumes Mulloy got in the heist for which he was imprisoned. But Mulloy didn't partake in the heist, and is back in Los Angeles to get back at the gang who framed him.

Clocking in at under 80 minutes, the film is a no-nonsense thrill, during which we're undoubtedly rooting for Powell's toughie and his new alcoholic sidekick, played with a somehow endearing mysogyny by Erdman. Rhonda Fleming is the dubious love interest and William Conrad the bulky villain. (Another coincidental link to the director of The Caine Mutiny is the presence here of Jean Porter, Edward Dmytryk's wife.)

The film was the directorial debut of Robert Parrish, whose 1976 book Growing Up In Hollywood is, we were told by Clyde Jeavons, one of the finest Hollywood memoirs. The prolific Joseph Biroc was cinematographer, and there's an unvarnished grit to the film, with only sparing visual cues to a larger city in the background (like in that still above); indeed, this film continues noir's tradition to have action take place in the suburbs, as if the overflow of a corrupt city capital is all-infecting, at the expense of the sacred provinciality of those considered outside its reach.

Nancy Mysel's team at UCLA restored the film (disappointingly, the festival brochure makes no reference to "teams" of preservationists), and the visual clarity lends fitting crispness to the terse plot. The feature was preceded by Popular Science (Issue No. J7-6), an amusing 9-minute featurette from 1947 "processed in the new Magnacolor", which presented self-promotional material on new scientific wonders, such as ready-made meals made for mass home consumption, a mechanical "brain" tested at UCLA and a look at the possibilities of commercial airlines.

There's a fascinating piece at Ferdy on Films written by Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation (who fully funded UCLA's restoration), which explicates the history of the film's rights, and why this and so many other films of the period are under risk of being forgotten.

Finally (for now; the second part of this write-up will follow), since I've already noted that the LFF's brochure accompanied its write-up on The Caine Mutiny with a black and white production still, here are some interesting reversals: various one-sheets for Cry Danger, all in glorious colour.