Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Très Distingué: "Breakfast at Tiffany's," another "Big Screen Classic" from TCM and Fathom Events

Each month this year Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events have teamed to bring "Big Screen Classics" into movie theaters around the country. The series kicked off with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) in January and will close with From Here To Eternity (1953) in December.
Audrey Hepburn and Jose Luis de Vilallonga
I've attended several of these screenings and last Sunday afternoon enjoyed the immense pleasure of viewing one of my favorite romantic comedies on the big screen for the first time, Blake Edwards' iconic Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) starring Audrey Hepburn in the role that defined her appeal and firmly cemented her status as a film and style legend.

The film is based on a 1958 novella of the same name by Truman Capote. Capote had become a literary sensation in 1948 at age 24 with the publication of his first novel, a best-seller, Other Voices, Other Rooms. By the time he completed Breakfast at Tiffany's, the still-young author was well-established in the literary world and a celebrated enfant terrible, and his much-anticipated novella would appear in serialized form in Esquire magazine not long before Random House published it as part of a collection along with three stories. Capote would reflect on his novella a few years later and note that Breakfast at Tiffany's signaled his evolution toward "a more subdued, clearer prose" style. This new approach culminated in his 1965 "non-fiction novel," In Cold Blood. Capote would sell the film rights for Tiffany's to Paramount with the desire that his friend Marilyn Monroe be given the role of free-spirited protagonist Holly Golightly, but this was not to be.

Blake Edwards (Days of Wine and Roses, The Pink Panther, Victor/Victoriasigned on to direct, George Axelrod (The Seven Year Itch) wrote the screenplay, Franz Planer (The Caine Mutiny, The Children's Hour) photographed, Henry Mancini (Days of Wine and Roses, Charade) composed the musical score. And Audrey Hepburn starred.

Audrey Hepburn
Audrey had, of course, already won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in William Wyler's Roman Holiday (1953), her first starring film role. She followed this star-making turn as the European princess who takes a brief Roman holiday with similar roles as enchanting gamine types in films like Billy Wilder's Sabrina (1954) and his Love in the Afternoon (1957), and Stanley Donen's Funny Face (1957). She would earn an Oscar nod for Sabrina as well as for her more dramatic portrayal as the titular nun in Fred Zinnemann's The Nun's Story (1959) before taking on Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard
Some admirer's of Capote's novella have groused about the selection of Audrey Hepburn to play a young "hillbilly" girl who's reinvented herself as a New York City party girl/café society maven. Audrey is too chic, too European, they will say. There are also complaints that the character Truman Capote created - Holly's new neighbor, her platonic, probably gay, writer friend - was rewritten as a handsome blonde, blue-eyed ladies' man (George Peppard) who is "kept" by a wealthy married woman (Patricia Neal), but pines for Holly. And there is dissatisfaction with the film's happy ending vs. the book's more downbeat denouement. But the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany's was simply a loose adaptation of Capote's story. Shifted from New York during the bleak World War II era to the swinging late '50s/early '60s, it was conceived and crafted as a contemporary, mass-appeal romantic comedy. To that end, Blake Edwards whipped up a lovely soufflé of wistful romance, and it is Audrey Hepburn with her abundance of elfin, Givenchy-wrapped charm that makes the film the timeless classic it is. Even not-easy-to-please Truman Capote allowed that she "did a terrific job" in the role of Holly Golightly. The glorious New York City setting, Henry Mancini's quintessential score, Patricia Neal as a rich philandering wife, Orangey the marmalade tabby (reportedly the only cat to win two Patsy Awards) and George Peppard's baby-blue eyes are icing on the cake.

Audrey Hepburn and Orangey

Breakfast at Tiffany's was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Musical Score and Best Original Song ("Moon River"). Henry Mancini won Oscars for his score and for the song and also won five Grammys that year: Best Soundtrack Album, Best Performance by an Orchestra, as well as Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Instrumental Arrangement for "Moon River." Over the years since Breakfast at Tiffany's was released many apologies for Mickey Rooney's "yellow face" caricature portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi have been extended - from the actor himself and from Blake Edwards, who chose to take the character in that direction. We should remember that when the film was made such a portrayal was not viewed as inappropriate - see also Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956). Thankfully, this is no longer the case. 

Audrey Hepburn sings "Moon River"
A wide range of classic films, something for just about everyone, has been presented by TCM/Fathom throughout 2016: celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Maltese Falcon (1941) in February, celebrating the 60th anniversary of The Ten Commandments (1956) in March, On the Waterfront (1954) in April, celebrating the 30th anniversary of Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) in May, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) in June, Planet of the Apes (1968) in July, Animal House (1978) in August, celebrating the 60th anniversary of The King and I (1956) in August, Dr. Strangelove (1964) in September, The Shining (1980) in October and Breakfast at Tiffany's in November. Up next month, From Here to Eternity. Click here to find out more.

I'm looking forward to the TCM/Fathom "Big Screen Classics" schedule for 2017...

Counterpoint, Roy Newquist, ed. (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964)
Truman Capote: Conversations, Truman Capote and M. Thomas Inge (Univ. 
Press of Mississippi, 1987)

Audrey Hepburn in the "ultimate little black dress" - by Hubert de Givenchy
Many thanks to Fathom Events for tickets to this screening

Friday, October 28, 2016

Pierre Chenal's 1939 Adaptation of James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice"


From Thursday, November 3, through Monday, November 7, San Francisco's Roxie Theater will host the city's third annual French film noir festival, The French Had a Name For It 3. Fifteen films are set to screen, and opening night will showcase two from 1939, Marcel Carné's celebrated Le jour se lève (Daybreak), cited by many as the bridge film between poetic realism and noir, and Pierre Chenal's Le dernier tournant (The Last Turn), the much-anticipated, rarely seen first film adaptation of James M. Cain's searing crime novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Cain (Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity), a pioneer in that genre of spare, hardboiled fiction also known as roman noir, saw Postman, his first novel, published in 1934 to much notoriety. Bleak and tawdry, his steamy tale of a drifter and a young, dissatisfied wife who first cuckold and then murder her much older husband, created a scandal and sensation on publication. The book might've been adapted by Hollywood as soon as it arrived in bookstores had it been written only a year or two earlier. But the Hays Code, a strict set of rules governing Hollywood film production, was adopted in 1930 but ignored until 1934 when it began to be rigorously enforced. It wouldn't be until 1946 that Hollywood would finally bring Cain's story to the screen.

In the years just before World War II, French cinema entered what is now known as its classic era and directors like Marcel Carné, Jean Renoir, Julien Devivier, Jean Vigo, Pierre Chenal and Jacques Feyder were making films of an emerging cinematic style known as poetic realism. These films were marked by working class settings, moody themes, storylines often focused on doomed love and featured stylized - some would say proto-noir - cinematography, optical effects and editing. While James M. Cain's raw prose was anything but lyrical, Postman's desolate tale of illicit love at a tumbledown, seaside roadhouse lent itself to interpretation by a director out of the poetic realism movement.

Pierre Chernal's Le dernier tournant may lack the kind of Hollywood star power (sultry Lana Turner, resplendent in brilliant white, and smoldering John Garfield) and scrupulous construction that drives MGM's Tay Garnett-directed version of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), but his film has style and polish, with a script strikingly faithful to the book and the solid support of a trio of lead actors as well as those in character roles.

Fernand Gravey as Frank
Fernand Gravey (La ronde, The Great Waltz) was cast against type as Frank, the aimless drifter who resorts to murder for the sake of love and lust. Disheveled and unshaven, Gravey reveals not a trace of the suave sophistication he was known for in most of his lead roles and is surprisingly credible and affecting in a downbeat part.

Corinne Luchaire (Prison Without Bars) was only eighteen when cast as (equally young) Cora, who married much older Nick strictly for security. Luchaire has none of Lana Turner's glamor, but her youth and fierce energy give her a realism as Cain's "hell cat" that Turner could never hope to
Corinne Luchaire (Cora) and Michel Simon (Nick)
achieve. Of course, it's doubtful that Lana Turner, first and foremost a celluloid goddess, was ever actually meant to seem real.

And there is Michel Simon (L'Atalante, Le quai des brumes) as Nick, the inconvenient husband. Blessed or cursed with elastic facial features that occasionally bring to mind Charles Laughton as Quasimodo, Simon plays Nick to the oblivious, ludicrous hilt, leaving little question why this butt of cuckoldry is ripe for killing.

One of Le dernier tournant's stronger assets is the cinematography of Christian Matras, best known for his work on Max Ophuls' final four masterworks, La ronde (1950), Le plaisir (1952),The Earrings of Madame de...(1953) and Lola Montes (1955). Matras had photographed La Grande Illusion for Jean Renoir in 1937, and his work of that period is noted for its documentary-like look and feel. On Le dernier tournant, Matras seems on the cusp of adopting a more fluid approach and he would later, with Ophuls, develop such skill with camera movement that it would be called "camera choreography." His use of chiaroscuro lighting along with some expressionistic and at times flashy camera work on Le dernier tournant add the needed darkness and depth to Chenal's rendering.


For program and ticket information on The French Had a Name For It 3, click here.