Adam continues his residency at the TCM Film Festival 2018 with another full roster of eclectic films, and James Ivory discussing how he almost made a Tom Cruise film.
Sleep and hydration.
Wherever, whenever, however, you do it, when you go to a festival, you must remember those two important things. This is why after Point Blank I headed home as I knew Saturday would be the marathon. The glory day, the day that would be hardest, but most rewarding, of the fest… well if you consider 16 to 18 hours of standing in line and watching movies as “hard”. Day Three did not disappoint.
I arrived early for the 9 am screening to begin the day. My day was programmed to (hopefully) ebb and flow and give me the perfectly-crafted day of content.
A Letter to Three Wives
Wow, I wasn’t expecting this one to hit me in the way it did. It should not have surprised me as this is writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz at the height of his powers as a storyteller. A Letter to Three Wives would begin a run of films that would include No Way Out and All about Eve. Mankiewicz’s film tells the story of three well-to-do wives played by Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, and Ann Southern who receive a letter (the letter of the title) informing them that the Godot-like Addie Ross has run off with one of their husbands. Told over the course of a field trip for the local school, each woman internally reviews if they could be the one. The film doesn’t play as your standard day affair. It is Mankiewicz who never met a sharp barb he didn’t love that keeps it interesting. Rather than going the normal melodramatic route, A Letter to Three Wives is set up more like a mystery/noir, much like last year’s Big Little Lies, revolving around a central mystery.
Of course, the screening would not have been complete if TCM Host and Gent about Town Ben Mankiewicz did not intro this one. To help him do so was his sister, Alex Mankiewicz. Ben and Alex discussed the time with their father and his views on film as a whole and this film (which netted the writer/director two Oscars). They also discussed how both Herman and Joseph Mankiewicz know they were always at odds with the “low profession” to which they belonged. No matter their opinions the Mankiewicz’s created an amazing run of films. A Letter to Three Wives is one of them.
Next was a film that I had not seen in about two decades. To further compound issues, it was on early era Bravo (when they used to be an art house/independent film channel) in a heavily-edited version. So, we can count this one as a fresh viewing.
Before they screened the film James Ivory sat down with Ben Mankiewicz for a great 30-minute discussion about the film and more. Ivory, a recent Academy Award winner for Call Me By Your Name, at 89 years was a delightfully spry and witty interview. One of the juiciest tidbits was the fact that before Maurice, Ivory almost made a film with Tom Cruise about treasure hunters, going as far as to have a script commissioned by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Remains of the Day). Other interesting bits: Ivory is wanting to direct a big budget version of Richard II, and his second solely- written screenplay is about to go into production with Alexander Payne directing. It was a fascinating conversation, which is more the case than usual with the TCM Q&A’s.
Maurice fits perfectly in the Merchant/Ivory productions of the 1980’s and 1990’s dealing with society and repression. Maurice (James Wilby) and his life are no different than Henry Wilcox from Howard’s End or James Stevens from Remains of the Day. Moving in society because of what is dictated to them and their sense of society’s rules and boundaries. Part of this film’s breakthrough is how Ivory has created a film that is at points very specific and other times is universal. The director working from a wonderfully modulated script by Jhabval has created an empathetic portrait of a fully realized homosexual man with wants, needs, pressures, love, and sexuality.
Its honest portrayal of sexuality is much more explicit than anything in Call Me By Your Name. The film never feels salacious but rather truly heartfelt and passionate. One wants nothing more than for Maurice to be happy and find what he so desperately wants: love. Wilby as Maurice is a revelation. If this film had been released this year Wilby would surely be up for Marvel movies or similar big budget productions. Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves show up as Maurice’s respective paramours. Graves is electric as the younger more forward thinking and thirsty Alec Scudder. Grant shows some true chops beyond his normal stammering, giving life to Clive, the repressed first love. Denholm Elliot, Ben Kingsley, Simon Callow all show up and do exemplary supporting work.
Cohen Media has actually assembled a 4K restoration for Maurice’s 30th anniversary. The film looks nothing short of stunning. As is the norm with Cohen Media, there is sure to be a limited theatrical run, followed by a Blu-Ray and DVD release. Do not sit on this one if you have not seen it. Maurice is worth your attention.
After a short dinner break, it was off to see a William Holden film I knew nothing about other than its “troublesome” plot description. Well consider me a little shocked by this one.
The World of Suzie Wong
Do not let the early 1990’s sitcom title fool you. The World of Suzie Wong is quite the progressive romantic drama. An architect (Holden) turns in his rulers for a paintbrush and dreams of being an artist. It reeks of a mid-life crisis when the 40-year-old character moves to Hong Kong to pursue said dream only to fall in love with Suzie (Nancy Kwan), a prostitute.
Yes, I know. I thought the same thing you’re probably thinking. It was half the reason I went to see it. Just how racist and out of touch is this film? The answer is: it is not as ignorantly racist as one would think. Yes, there are some bad stereotypes, but at its core, the film is an adept social drama, the romance being a little less adroitly handled. The fact that neither the script nor William Holden hold back from the ugly moments is shocking.
Many of the roadblocks ahead of Suzie and Robert (Holden) are because of Robert’s own fears, ignorance, action, and carelessness. Even in 2018 this kind of storytelling in romance would be hailed as genius and almost impossible to get through the studio system. Nancy Kwan is perfectly matched with Holden. Though half his age at the time, Kwan goes toe-to-toe with Holden the entire film. The result is a film pairing that manages some truly great chemistry and a romance that shouldn’t work that does.
The on-location photography and all the work done by Geoffrey Unsworth (Superman) and his camera crew is spectacular. Huge credit also goes to art director John Box for the truly impressive set work they do. There is an entire section of this film that turns into a full-on disaster epic. The physical effects work done is so impressive one will think the film has turned into an Irwin Allen picture for a moment. The work could compete with anything we see currently being done with visual effects.
The film does have one of the gutsiest endings I have seen in a supposed romantic drama. The ending is so much of a mic drop, if you will, that the post-script to that moment is so out of place its tone-deaf and almost ruins the film.
The adrenaline needed to be pumped in a good way after the “shock & awe” of The World of Suzie Wong’s ending. That injection came in the form of John Carpenter’s introduction to this classic gangster picture.Carpenter was in a rowdy jovial mood, discussing his favorite filmmaker and one of his favorite films. The director discussed it’s pre-code origins, how it was cut and then forty plus years later restored. He even managed to make a hilarious joke about the DePalma remake.
Howard Hawks’ Scarface is a pre-code actioner of the highest order. Bullets fly. Gangsters are killed without hesitation. The gangster molls make no apologies for their actions and being with their paramours. Cars race down the street spraying other cars full of bullets from a Chicago typewriter. Everything is done with an amoral glee that could never be gotten away with even in 2018.
The film played perfectly with this audience. For as much as an actioner as it is, Hawks cleverly made it an equally effective social commentary about gun control and gangland violence. This added an especially relevant note when it came to the scenes about gun control. In fact those moments with Edwin Maxwell as the Chief of Detectives speaking directly to the camera about speaking to your local Congressperson about “the machine gun problem” and how it is the “only solution” for this sort of violence. This jarring but effective technique caused the audience to actually cheer.
Scarface, as much a socially conscious film it is, is also a rousing action epic. No matter that it has been labeled a Gangster film, it has more in common with action films of nowadays than any Gangster film of its era or even its 1983 remake. At 91-minutes, the film is as lean, mean, and heartless as Tony Camonte (Paul Muni). Hawks would later turn to a longer more prestigious film-making style but here he brings the manic energy he brought to his screwball comedies.
I have gone on for a very long time. I did see Night of the Living Dead but that is a discussion for a different column in the coming weeks. I will leave you with Simon Pegg, who was the special guest host for the film as Edgar Wright had to, unfortunately, drop out at the last minute.
‘The director, working from a wonderfully modulated script by Jhabvala…’: Maurice was not scripted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: she specifically didn’t want to do it. Maurice was, in fact, adapted and scripted by Ivory in collaboration with Kit Hesketh Harvey, but with some input from Jhabvala behind the scenes.