“They were clustered / At the right waist-port; the gun was there, / And Homer hung against it, crying joy. / They saw a river; they all knew it.” (p 22)

My Top 7:

  1. The Best Years of Our Lives
  2. Brief Encounter
  3. The Big Sleep
  4. It’s a Wonderful Life
  5. Henry V
  6. The Spiral Staircase
  7. The Killers

note:  This is an interesting year.  It’s one of the greatest years in film history and the Top 7 films (Children of Paradise and Notorious are original scripts) are better than than the top 7 of any other year.  However, there’s a big drop-off after those seven and thus I only have a Top 7, not a Top 10.

Oscar Nominees  (Best Screenplay):

  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Anna and the King of Siam
  • Brief Encounter
  • The Killers

note:  The fifth nominee, Open City, is an Original Screenplay.

LOBBYCARD193-2The Best Years of Our Lives

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film twice, the first time under Wyler as a great director, and the second time as a Best Picture nominee.  Every time I see it I seem to appreciate it more and more.  It’s a shame that this is the only Nighthawk Award it wins, but it is up against Children of Paradise in most categories, a film that is among my Top 3 of all-time.  It is one of the greatest of all American films.  I say that not only because it is American-made, but because it tells such a great story about a specific time in American history.  America itself resonates in this film more than in just about any other film as good as this one.

The Source:

gloryGlory for Me by MacKinley Kantor  (1945)

This novel is really just a mess to try and read.  As is mentioned below, the idea for this novel was actually commissioned by producer Samuel Goldwyn.  Though this was still a decade before he would win the Pulitzer for Andersonville (another novel I just could not get into), MacKinlay Kantor was already a well-known author and he decided to write a blank verse novel.  I can’t imagine what could have possibly inspired him to do that.  There are good ideas at the heart of this story, and it’s easy to see where the script comes from, but it’s just a nightmare to try to read.  I’ll be honest – blank verse isn’t really my thing.  And even though it is said (in multiple places) that this novel is written in blank verse, it doesn’t seem like blank verse to me – it doesn’t seem like there is any meter to it; I suspect that this novel is actually written in free verse and that no one has bothered to point that out, or perhaps to figure it out.  The copy I read is the one from Tufts University, purchased in December of 1945, long before the film was released and it has only been checked out one before – back in 1951.

Whatever the verse is, it makes this a rather relentless book to try to read.  I can’t recommend it to anybody, especially when you consider that it was turned into one of the very best American films ever made.

The Adaptation:

“What did appeal to [Wyler], however, was a story Goldwyn had commissioned in 1944 and dropped after the author turned in a manuscript in blank verse. Goldwyn had asked MacKinlay Kantor, a screenwriter and historical novelist, to create the story. Prompting the assignment was a Time magazine feature about Marines on furlough who were finding it hard to adjust to the home front. Kantor, who had flown missions with the Eighth Air Force as an overseas correspondent, delivered a manuscript about three servicemen back from the war, Glory for Me, in January 1945.” (A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler by Jan Herman, p 279)

“Sherwood would alter some details of the original story but would keep many essentials. As in the original, Derry was a drugstore soda jerk before the war and lived on the wrong side of the tracks . . . In Sherwood’s screenplay, however, Derry can’t find her on his first night home and so does not discover her infidelity. Their bad marriage is drawn out and a love story develops between Derry and Al Stephenson’s grown daughter. Derry’s wife ‘would be kept throughout the story,’ Wyler explained, ‘not merely as the third side of the conventional [love] triangle but as a symbol of a way of life’ that Derry would leave behind. Kantor’s Homer also underwent changes. In Glory for Me he returned from the war a spastic because of combat injuries . . . the physical disability had to be altered. ‘I realized,’ Wyler said, ‘that no actor, no matter how great, could play a spastic with conviction.'” (Herman, p 281)

“These changes pare out most of the sensationalism of Kantor’s versions (such as suicide attempts, bank robberies and flying testicles), and most of the cloying sentiment (such as recurring romantic fantasies about lilac bushes).  The filmmakers thought it preposterous that Al would quit his well-paying job in favour of some agrarian version of going back to the land.  Delaying the break-up of Fred and Marie’s marriage also makes Peggy and Fred’s romance more fraught and tense.  Shadowy figures in Kantor’s story, Milly and Peggy’s roles are enlarged in the new script.”  (The Best Years of Our Lives, BFI Film Classics Series, Sarah Kozloff, p 38 with a footnote to Encyclopedia of Novels into Films, p 145-146)

The Credits:

Directed by William Wyler.  Screen Play by Robert Sherwood. From a Novel by MacKinlay Kantor.
The IMDb doesn’t list a writing credit for Kantor other than the source.  But, according to the BFI book, the Samuel Goldwyn Papers at the Margaret Herrick Library contain a script by Kantor in addition to the novel; I don’t know what, if any, of the final Sherwood script might have used ideas from the Kantor script that might not have been present in the original novel.

Brief EncounterBrief Encounter

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film once.  It is a magnificent drama, with great performances all around and a brilliantly written script at its heart.  It says a lot, I think, that it is labelled, and still generally thought of as Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter.

stillifeThe Source:

Still Life” by Noël Coward  (1935)

“Still Life” is actually part of a larger piece called Tonight at 10:30.  It is one of nine short plays that make up the larger piece, as is described in the introduction to Noël Coward’s complete plays:

Eager to repeat with Gertrude Lawrence the success they had enjoyed in London and New York with Private Lives six years earlier, but unwilling to commit to the tedium of a long run in a single unchanging script, Noël devised this sequence in sets of three plays which could be played alternately at matinées and evenings by the same cast.  The mood ranged from slapstick farce through sentimental melodrama to romantic comedy, and the triple bills proved highly successful: many of the plays later turned up as movies or stage musicals in their own individual right.  (Plays Three, introduction by Sheridan Morley)

It is a really short piece, just five scenes, all of which take place in the railroad station.  It fits the bill precisely for what it was – a bit of a romantic drama paired with a couple of comedies.  It gave some drama and romance to the middle of the night.  Coward himself considered is well-written and economical and it is precisely that.  By keeping all the scenes in the railway station we get a notion of what has gone in the lives of these two people without ever quite seeing what has transpired.

The Adaptation:

While keeping everything in the railway station had worked for the play, that wouldn’t work for a feature-length film, even if it was only 86 minutes.  So things were going to need to be opened up – we would have to see some of the things that we only either heard about or imagined in the play.  This begins primarily by giving Celia Johnson a narrative voiceover that could help spell things out.

To that extent, well over half the film consists of scenes that didn’t exist in the original play, from them meeting for lunch (accidentally), to boating on the river to the almost consummation of their relationship (which naturally wasn’t ever going to be allowed on-screen during this time period).

But perhaps the most remarkable thing done in the transformation of the play to the script is a simple movement.  On stage, the first scene has Laura getting grit in her eye and meeting the handsome young doctor Alec.  But, in the film, we only get to that scene after Laura has gone home and is narrating to her husband in her head the actions of her affair.  In the film, the first scene is actually their farewell scene, when they know the affair has to end.  We only understand that when we return to the scene at the end of the film, but it provides a powerful emotional pull to the start of the film by beginning with what they know is an ending and we can only slowly begin to see what this moment means for them.

The Credits:

Directed by David Lean.  Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter as the title card is the only indication of the source.  There is no writing credit at all.

big_sleep_ver4_xlgThe Big Sleep

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film once.  To Have and Have Not was the breakout debut of Lauren Bacall but this film, using the same writers, director and stars is really the better film.  Yet, for how great it is, it failed to earn so much as a single Academy Award nomination.

bigsleepThe Source:

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)

There are few mysteries that are good as this one.  It isn’t just the mystery itself which gets so confusing that even the author couldn’t figure out who killed one of the characters.  It’s the style of it.  It’s not quite as compact as Dashiell Hammett’s, but it is close.  It’s like Hammett was transplanted out of San Francisco and down to Los Angeles.  “Beyond the fence the hill sloped for several miles.  On this lower level faint and far off I could just barely see some of the old wooden derricks of the oilfield from which the Sternwoods had made their money . . . The Sternwoods, having moved up the hill, could no longer smell the stale sump water or the oil, but they could still lock out of their front windows and see what had made them rich.”

It’s hard to know how good a detective Marlowe is simply from this book; unlike Spade, most of the case kind of falls in around him and he uses his brains more than simple detective work, but then again, unlike Spade, we’ll get several more novels (all of them worth a read) to see Marlowe again.  The two of them are linked, of course, not just in style, not just in the state, but in their indelible film portrayals by Humphrey Bogart.

Like with The Maltese Falcon, Marlowe gets caught up in a mystery that involves several corpses (“Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.”).  There is a woman he is attracted to but he dare not trust (“The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim and with enough melodic line for a tone poem.”).  But, like Spade, he is determined to get to the bottom of this mystery and he’s determined not to be bought off, no matter what is offered (“I am so money greedy that for twenty-five bucks a day and expenses, mostly gasoline and whiskey, I do my thinking myself, what there is of it.”).  It’s the kind of character that mystery writers have been trying to invent for the last 75 years and they still can’t manage to do what both Hammett and Chandler did.

The Adaptation:

“The scenario took eight days to write, and all we were trying to do was to make every scene entertain. We didn’t know about the story.” (Howard Hawks Interviews, ed. Scott Breivold, p 29)

I don’t know how much stock to put on that statement – I read through Hawks’ interviews and he has a tendency to gloss over things.  Nonetheless, they turned the novel, which already was a hell of a story, into one hell of a film.  They managed to keep a lot of the story, they managed to keep a lot of the dialogue (“You ought to wean her.  She looks old enough.”), and sometimes made good use of dialogue they had to change (“Tall, aren’t you?” becomes “You aren’t very tall, are you?” and “I didn’t mean to be” becomes “I try to be.”).

It is well-known by this point that there were some changes and scenes added to the film after its original Armed Forces screenings in 1945 before the general release in 1946 (it was held back so that Warners could get all their War films released before no one cared about them anymore).  Those scenes, of course, are scenes that were almost entirely created by the screenwriters and don’t come from Chandler’s novel, although, like with all the changes, they certainly have the same feel as the scenes that do come straight from Chandler.

For much of this film, it is true to the book, although the ending is drastically changed.  But, even in the ending, all the changes feel true to the book even when they aren’t.  That’s the best kind of adaptation you can hope for.

The Credits:

Directed by Howard Hawks.  Screen Play by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett & Jules Furthman.  From the Novel by Raymond Chandler.

itsawonderfullife-emailIt’s a Wonderful Life

The Film:

I reviewed this film once before.  Before that, in lieu of a review, I put up a poem I once wrote inspired by this and two other films.

This film is, along with Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, for me, the quintessential Christmas film.  It is not because of its sentiment.  It is because both films remind me precisely what I celebrate at Christmas.  As an atheist, I look at Christmas as a cultural holiday.  I celebrate the concepts that so many hold dear – peace on earth and good will towards man.  It is a time to look at what is around you and know why it is important to you.  No man is alone who has friends.  Clarence writes that to George at the end of the film and it is true.  This film rings so true because of it sentiment – that a life that is something which has meaning, even if we don’t always know where to look for it.  George Bailey, of course, has lived a life that has considerable meaning and he needs to be shown that.  He learns that by the end of the film.

My poem was not an accident.  Though there is an element of humor to it, moving in one night through Bergman and Allen to Capra, it was something I did in one night.  I felt the need to end with It’s a Wonderful Life because I needed to be reminded of that.  I was not married at the time, had not yet had a son, but I understood the very concepts at the core of the film and I say now what I say then, it’s a wonderful life after all.

Two years after I wrote that poem, the idea came back to life in a very different way as the only conclusion I could possibly write to a short story that is part of a longer piece, that, hell, I may as well put here (4y-come now angel) since it’s just as unlikely to be read as it is sitting in my desk.

greatestgiftThe Source:

The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern  (1943)

This story was originally conceived in 1938 and in 1943, its author tried to sell it, but magazines were resistant to a “fantasy” and so it went unpublished.  Stern then sent it out as a deluxe Christmas card to 200 people, it made its way to Frank Capra, back from doing propaganda films for the war effort and he knew it was the film he had to make.

It is a charming little story.  And it is a little story.  You can buy it in its own edition because for the 50th anniversary of the film, Stern’s daughter had a new edition of the story printed.  Normally I would object to that, but I’m okay with it this time for the following reasons.  First, this is a charming story that indeed has the blue print for what you will see on film.  You don’t get the flashbacks, but only see things from the present and George’s life and how the town changes, but it’s easy to see how the film will build from there.  Second, there are some really glorious woodcuts in this story that really help bring it to life.  Third, this is a Christmas story and it’s a nice story to sit around and read as a family, the same way that so many people sit around on Christmas and watch the film.  It’s exactly the kind of book you can haul out on Christmas and enjoy.

But that’s all that this story is.  A short story about a man who wishes he had never been born, is granted that wish, realizes precisely what his town would be like if he had not been around, and then is granted the chance to come back to life and appreciate what he has around him.  It would need Capra to really flesh it out and show you in much more detail how he has changed his town, but the basic blueprint is all there.

In Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, Joseph McBridge writes “The story appeared in Good Housekeeping as ‘The Man Who Never Was’ before being published in 1945 as a small book entitled The Greatest Gift.” (p 510), but nowhere in the afterward to the new edition of the book does it mention that.  It appears that the McBridge chronology is not quite accurate – it was sold as a film, then that success allowed a printing of it, which appeared the same month as the version in Good Housekeeping (which is titled ‘The Man Who Never Was Born’ in spite of what McBride writes – you can find a link to the actual story as it appeared in GH down below in the comments).

The Adaptation:

There is a considerable amount of information on the process of this script and how it came to be in a few different books, and this piece would just be a mishmash of quotes, so, I will point interested readers to the appropriate places.

In The Name Above the Title, Frank Capra’s autobiography, he describes how he read the story and went through several scripts and eventually brought in the husband and wife writing team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich.

In Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, author Joseph McBridge talks about the hiring of various writers and the eventual fight over who should get screen credit.  The one bit from there that I will quote is relevant as to who brought in specific elements to the film:

Hackett said, however that it was he and his wife who decided to borrow Odets’s powerful scene of the drunken druggist, Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner), slapping the young George Bailey for telling him that he is mixing poison with his medicine. Other elements derived from the Odets script include the scene of George as a boy saving his brother from drowning, the dance and moonlight walk in which George and Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) are surprised with the news of his father’s death, and the romantic rivalry over Mary between George and his friend Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson), whom she rejects to marry George.  (p 511-512)

Then there is the very detailed The It’s a Wonderful Life Book by Jeanine Basinger.  Her book details the full making of the film, including details about the various scripts, all of which are still in existence at the Capra Archives at Wesleyan (archives are wonderful; if you find a hot archivist, I’d definitely advise marrying her).  It includes excerpts from the early scripts as well as the complete shooting script.

The Credits:

Produced and Directed by Frank Capra.  Screen Play by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Frank Capra.  Additional scenes by Jo Sweling.  Based on a story by Philip Van Doren Stern.

The IMDb lists Michael Wilson as an uncredited contributor to screenplay.  It does not mention any of the other writers involved, which included Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly and Clifford Odets, in spite of the fact that some of the scenes from Odets’ script ended up in the film.

henryVTCHenry V

The Film:

I have reviewed this film once before.  It is a great film, a patriotic pageant of color and history and rich, vibrant speeches about the importance of fighting for England.  It didn’t make it to the States until 1946, but when it was being made, in 1943, it was a time when it was far from certain that England would prevail in the fight against Hitler.  It’s enough to make a patriotic film, but Olivier did much better than that, making a truly great film, but importantly, it is the first great Shakespeare film.

Henry V hogarthThe Source:

The Life of Henry the Fifth by William Shakespeare  (1599)

How you look at this play might depend entirely on how you first come across it.  Do you look at Olivier and see this as a patriotic work, the fiery young king taking back what rightfully belongs to him, leading the country forth into greatness once again?  Or, if Branagh was your first experience, is this the bloody madness of war, an early form of imperialism and simply a waste of lives and money just to get a few acres of land?  Watching Tom Hiddleston in The Hollow Crown, you might have seen the young Hal of Henry IV grow into a strong ruler, finding the maturity that he certainly lacked under the influence of certain companions and stretching forward with a strong hand, the strength that his father had shown in taking the crown from the weakling Richard II.  Or, perhaps, you had already read the two parts of Henry IV and you see Henry as a betrayal of Falstaff, the man for whom life is a rousing chorus of language and drink, much in the same manner that Harold Bloom views this play.

I would not personally venture to say that Shakespeare never wrote a mediocre play.  I am not a particular fan of either Titus Andronicus or Romeo and Juliet.  But there is not a play by Shakespeare that is not graced by magnificent language that makes every play worth reading, or, even better watching, either on stage or on film.  That language, when spoken by actors who really understand the language, is the backbone of the English language that we speak today.  This play, in particular, has two magnificent speeches – first the “Once more unto the breech”, then, later, the St Crispian’s Day speech.  And between them is that scene of Henry, moved by firelight to visit his men, to find out their minds, to know what his subjects might think.  This is not of the best Shakespeare plays, and as a history, I would rank it behind Richard III and probably both parts of Henry IV, but it is, in some ways, one of his most cinematic, and it comes alive when we hear “We few, we band of brothers.”

The Adaptation:

In his Confessions of an Actor, Olivier really wants to stick to talking about acting and discusses his film directing very little.  He talks a little about developing the style of the film without actually discussing the style itself.  The most insightful thing that Olivier has to say that relates to this film is about acting in the play on stage: “Until I had learnt to appreciate the part of Henry, I was touched by very little of it.  I was intensely shy of a great deal of it, being influenced by the 1930s dislike of all heroism, and I tried to find ways round the problem by playing against the declamatory style and undercutting it; it was hopeless, of course.  I went to Ralph [Richardson] with the problem.  ‘I know he’s a boring old scoutmaster on the face of it,’ Ralph said, ‘but being that it’s Shakespeare, he’s the exaltation of all scoutmasters.  He’s the cold-bath king and you have to glory in it.'”  (p 102-103)

This is the first Shakespeare film to appear in my Top 10, but it won’t be the last.  That’s because, while Shakespeare wrote the play, a screenplay can be different.  The screenplay here makes a big difference.  It’s the script that takes the entire first act and places it in the Globe theatre, complete with theatrical flourishes, actors hamming it up to get applause and reactions from the crowd.  It is only when the King is departing, part-way through the second act when we finally get to the real period of the piece and leave the stage behind.  That scene, and the one immediately after, show precisely the kind of choices that Olivier would make.  In the former, he cuts in its entirety a long speech that Henry makes before setting out, basically giving enough of the scene to show his pardon and then his grand departure (“Cheerly to sea, the signs of war advance.  /  No king of England if not king of France!”).  The latter scene actually depicts the death of Falstaff, complete with a voiceover from Henry from the end of Henry IV Part Two.  Branagh would follow this example, making certain to include Falstaff, which might be confusing to those who don’t know these plays, but Olivier and Branagh both seem to be confident that the bulk of their audiences will, in fact, know these plays.

The Credits:

“The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with his battell fought at Agincourt in France by Will Shakespeare”.  Produced and Directed by Laurence Olivier.  The Text Editor: Alan Dent.

The title is the only credit in the film at the beginning.  The others are from the end credits.  The IMDb lists “uncredited writing” by Olivier, Dent and Dallas Bower (credited as the associate producer).  The Criterion DVD lists the Screenplay by Alan Dent and Laurence Olivier.

spiral_staircase_xlgThe Spiral Staircase

The Film:

This is the ***.5 film that should but can’t.  If this film had been in 1945 it would have earned a bunch of Nighthawk nominations – it’s smart, extremely well directed, well written, suspenseful, with very good music, first-rate cinematography and a very good performance from Dorothy McGuire at its heart as the mute woman who is likely being hunted by a serial killer determined to wipe out those he views as flawed.  But it is a film from 1946, which means it has to go up against the juggernaut of those top seven films and it manages to land in the Top 5 just twice – for Supporting Actress (the Oscar-nominated Ethel Barrymore) and Score.  I suppose I shouldn’t feel too bad, as that gives one more Nighthawk nomination than it earned Oscar noms.  But it actually ends up in the Top 10 in nine categories, and in this year of seven amazing films, it comes in eighth place in Picture, Director, Actress and Editing (it couldn’t earn an Oscar nomination for Director because Robert Siodmak was nominated for The Killers instead but I think the direction here is better).

In some ways, this feels, like Gaslight two years earlier, like a Hitchcock film that somehow wasn’t nominated by Hitchcock.  Those two films have a couple of things in common as well – neither features the “innocent man” that was such a prominent part of so many Hitchcock films and both of them have a star performance from a female who is being targeted, which Hitchcock had already done so well in Rebecca and Suspicion.

Dorothy McGuire, in what might be her finest performance, plays Helen, a mute woman who is being cautiously romanced by the nice young doctor who has moved to town and is hoping to finally get some clients away from the old dottering doctor, including Helen’s employer, the almost invalid Mrs. Warren (played by Barrymore with delightful disdain for all around her).  It’s complicated by her two sons, either of whom might be the killer and both of whom are quite creepy.

All of this works together because Siodmak does such a good job with the direction, because the cinematography and music are so good and because of the performances from McGuire and Barrymore.  It’s not quite a classic, but it’s a very good film that you definitely shouldn’t miss.

some-must-watch-ethel-lina-whiteThe Source:

Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White  (1933)

Some Must Watch is a decent little mystery novel about a killer going around killing women.  It’s a small little town and Helen, a young woman working for the rich invalid, Lady Warren, seems to be convinced that she will be the next victim.  It’s never made quite clear why this is so except for maybe the fact that the killer seems to kill young women and outside of Helen there seems to be a dearth of young women around.  In the end, it will turn out to be not very interesting how this develops and it seems to come to a rather abrupt conclusion and the effectiveness of the early scenes have kind of come apart quite a bit by the end.

The Adaptation:

When the novel was turned into a film, the screenwriters made a couple of key changes to the book, changes which make this film a far better story.  The first is the linking bit between all the victims of the killer.  They are “flawed” in some way, which, first, gives the killer a motivation that seems to be lacking in the original, and second, gives a reason that people think the killer might be going after Helen.  Helen in the book isn’t even a mute.  That she is a mute here, and that she may be considered “flawed” gives the film a much better story right from the start.

The second key change is not so much in the identity of the killer, but in the presence of a bit of a red herring.  In the book, there’s not a very good job of giving you any notice as to who the killer might be.  In the film, the killer is at least hinted at, but, there is another character, not in the book, who is also hinted at.  In fact, the hints lead more strongly away from the killer than they do towards him and that makes this a much more plausible thriller.

All of this simply leads this more towards being a Hitchcock film – the taking of a not that strong original source, changing a few vital details while keeping the overall story mostly intact, and using those details to provide a palpable layer of suspense.

The Credits:

Directed by Robert Siodmak.  Screen Play by Mel Dinelli.  Based on the Novel “Some Must Watch” by Ethel Lina White.

The-Killers-1946The Killers

The Film:

What a star turn we have in the making in the dark.  Film noir so often happens so much in the dark that it’s only appropriate that one the screen greats, arising from a solid film noir should first appear only in the shadows, with just a voice, before we finally get to see the face, just before two men come in and fill him with bullets.  This is Burt Lancaster, a man who oozed charisma on the screen right from the start and who would eventually establish himself as one of the best in the industry no matter what was called for, comedy, drama, romance, action or even some piracy.  In this film he seems like a man doomed by fate.

He’s not just doomed by fate, of course.  There’s also the girl.  He meets her at a party and he can’t take his eyes off her.  Introductions happen, other people talk, she walks away, and he can’t stop staring at her.  And no wonder, because she’s Ava Gardner and she’s wearing a hell of a black dress.  She will pull him down from the second he sees her.  The girl he’s with?  He’ll ditch her.  The cop who’s been his closest friend for years?  He’ll lie to him and take the blame for her crime.  His life?  Well, that’s not gonna be worth a plum nickel, because he’ll eventually betray everyone, including himself just for that magnificent girl.

This is the film that Robert Siodmak earned his Oscar nomination for, which has been nothing but a headache for me, since most of his German films are hard to find and I’m still missing 30 of his films, far more than any other Oscar nominated director.  But, even though he deserved the nomination more for Spiral Staircase, it’s not a bad choice.  This is a tightly constructed film and the direction is partially to thank for that – Siodmak works well with his cinematographer to bring the right amount of light and darkness to every scene, especially that first scene with Lancaster.  You couldn’t have known he was a film legend in the making, but that first scene is one that’s certainly worthy of the introduction for a legend.

hemingwayThe Source:

The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway  (1927)

“The Killers” is one of those great Hemingway short stories that shows exactly how much of a story he was able to tell without ever really spelling out for the reader the story he’s telling.  It’s appropriate, I suppose, that in his The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, it follows “Hills Like White Elephants”, perhaps the pre-eminent example of his ability to do that.

For a story that is ostensibly about some action – two killers come to a small town diner intent on killing a boxer who has crossed the mob in some unidentified way, take some hostages, but find themselves in a quandary when their target doesn’t come in for dinner – there is very little narrative.  Hemingway’s sparse prose works well for the story which is almost entirely driven by dialogue.

Unless you’re a Hemingway short story fan you might miss that this is actually one of the Nick Adams stories, the young boy who grows into a man.  This is a part of his education, finding out the bleakness that the world sometimes has to offer and the desperation of fate and the desolation of those who refuse to do anything to fight against it.

The Adaptation:

The first ten minutes of this film are almost a straight adaptation of the book.  Almost every line from the story makes it to the screen intact (one epithet does not).  But after that, the original story has run its course and the filmmakers decide to take off from there, with a Citizen Kane like framework to look back at the Swede’s life and figure out how he ended up dead in the boarding house in this small little town.  But this shows one of the best ways you can make use of a really short story on screen, keeping everything from the story and filling in all the gaps that might build up around it without ever contradicting anything in the original story.

The Credits:

Directed by Robert Siodmak.  Screenplay by Anthony Veiller.  From the Story by Ernest Hemingway.  The film is titled as “Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers”.

The IMDb lists uncredited writing from Richard Brooks and John Huston.

Other Award Nominees

anna_and_the_king_of_siam_xlgAnna and the King of Siam

The Film:

It’s not this film’s fault that as I was watching it, I kept hearing, in the back of my head, “Getting to know you  /  getting to know all about you.”  It was especially annoying since I don’t even like that song.  Some films can escape this kind of thing – Olivier’s Henry is brilliant and different from Branagh’s, so they seem not to invite comparison with each other.  But, even though I am not a huge fan of The King and I, it has leads who give significantly better performances and it is lush and colorful.

This film is certainly a fine film, though by fine I mean *** and not ***.5 like The King and I.  Irene Dunne is solid in the lead, but I can’t really buy into either Rex Harrison or Lee J. Cobb as Siamese.  This film was overrated at the time – Gale Sondergaard received an undeserved Oscar nomination and this film somehow managed to not only get nominated, but win Best Black-and-White Cinematography in the same year that these films were not nominated: Children of Paradise, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Big Sleep, Notorious, It’s a Wonderful Life, Brief Encounter, The Spiral Staircase, The Stranger and The Killers.  And yet, in the years since, it has been mostly forgotten because of The King and I.

This film isn’t one I’m really comfortable with.  Aside from the ridiculous casting choices, it’s too much of a “watch how the West civilizes the East”.  The King and I works because of the chemistry between Kerr and Brynner, and because Brynner, Russian born, looked more of the part.  Neither story gets particularly high marks for fidelity to the real story so there’s no worries there.  In the end, this is a decent film, with good sets and costumes and a decent performance from Dunne in the lead role.  But it’s dated and it’s been done better and there’s really no need to watch it unless you’re an Oscar enthusiast.

annaandthekingThe Source:

Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon  (1944)

I struggled to make my way through this book, working my way through a story that I didn’t particularly like, yet one that I had digested in no less fewer than four films watched at least six times (twice each for this and The King and I).  I was reminded a bit of what William Goldman called “the boring bits” of The Princess Bride, the parts he supposedly excised when he offered us all the “good parts” version.  I eventually made my way through the book, a book that offers, of course, a more accurate portrayal of the life of Anna Leonowens than the one I had seen on screen, and I got to the Author’s Note and found it, actually, considerably more interesting than the book itself.  Landon, who lived for years in what was then Siam, read Leonowens’ two books (The English Governess at the Siamese Court and The Romance of the Harem).  A friend of Landon’s suggested that she combine the two books into one historical novel.  “Omit the long discussions and descriptions,” she was told.  “The only bore people who aren’t students of Siamese history.”  Now, that I found interesting, since I had found pretty much this whole book boring and I suppose I should be thankful that I didn’t have to go back the original books if they’re being described as boring.  Landon herself talks about how she wasn’t bored, was in fact riveted by the descriptions of Siam.  The credits of the film call this a biography, but for once Wikipedia is fairly accurate in calling this a novel, because, even as Landon puts it “I should say that it is ‘seventy-five per cent fact, and twenty-five per cent fiction based on fact.”  That’s a historical novel in my book.  And, I’m sorry to say, unless you’re a student of Siamese history, you’re probably going to find it boring.  I certainly did.

The Adaptation:

To Landon’s credit, the things that really make this more of a Hollywood feature aren’t in her original book.  Her book stays true to the facts.  Facts like, that when Landon departed for Britain, her son was very much alive and went with her.  Or, that she was in Britain when the king died and stayed there: “Anna never returned to Siam.  The King had remembered Anna and Louis generously in his will, but neither of them was to receive the inheritance.  The executors withheld it, and she knew of it only because her friends at court wrote and told her the circumstances.”  Yes, there are definitely some moments that are straight from the book (and, I assume, straight from life, though I’m certainly not going to track down the original books to confirm them), such as when she is first questioned about her age and answers “One hundred and fifty.”  But the ending, well, that’s just pure Hollywood.

The Credits:

Directed by John Cromwell.  Screen Play by Talbot Jennings and Sally Benson.  Based upon the Biography by Margaret Landon.

Other Adaptations
(in descending order of how good the film is)

  • My Darling Clementine  –  A rare ***.5 film on this list when I don’t have a full list up above.  That’s because I think the direction is the strong thing about this film rather than the script.  It’s based on Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall, the book that helped to immortalize the myth of Wyatt Earp.  It’s more fiction than fact.
  • Blithe Spirit  –  The third of the four Lean-Coward collaborations (the fourth, and best, is above, the second got a late U.S. release and will be in my Top 10 the next year), and by far the weakest (though it is still the highest level ***), perhaps because Comedy isn’t really Lean’s forte.  The play had been a big hit on the West End and Broadway.
  • Duel in the Sun  –  Given the controversy over this film and the lackluster reviews, it has no business being as good as it is, but this is actually a fairly good film, a high level ***.  It’s based on the novel by Niven Busch.
  • Dragonwyck  –  The directing debut of a Top 100 Director (Joseph L. Mankiewicz), this is adapted from the period novel taking place in upstate New York.
  • The Green Years  –  A. J. Cronin’s The Citadel had been nominated for Best Picture in 1938.  This adaptation of his novel about an Irish orphan isn’t that lucky but was nominated for a couple of Oscars.
  • The Diary of a Chambermaid  –  This novel was a sensation in late 19th Century France.  This is the Renoir version; there will also be a Buñuel version and a new version is about to come out in France.
  • A Stolen Life  –  Bette Davis plays twins in a remake of a 1939 British film that was an adaptation of a Czech novel.
  • The Wicked Lady  –  Based on the novel by Magdalen King-Hall, this was the second of three films included in the Gainsborough Criterion box set.
  • Nobody Lives Forever  –  Film noir from the novel I Wasn’t Born Yesterday by W.R. Burnett, whose Little Caesar and High Sierra had already been hit films and whose The Asphalt Jungle would be a few years later.
  • The Harvey Girls  –  MGM Musical (and winner of Best Song at the Oscars) based on the novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams, who was mainly known as a muckraker, but whose “The Night Bus” had been adapted into It Happened One Night.
  • Bedlam  –  A Val Lewton film about Bethlem Royal Hospital, also known as Bedlam (and where the word comes from).  Actually inspired by a series of eight paintings by William Hogarth called “A Rake’s Progress”.  In a period when source material was often not cited well, or at all, Hogarth was actually credited in the film.  It has a fascinating performance by Boris Karloff as the main doctor.
  • Dressed to Kill  –  The last of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films.  Has some rough connections to “A Scandal in Bohemia”, but otherwise it just uses the Holmes and Watson characters.
  • The Dark Corner  –  Lucille Ball in a film noir?  It happened, in this adaptation of a story from “Good Housekeeping”.
  • Centennial Summer  –  You don’t usually think of Otto Preminger directing Musicals, but he did on occasion.  This one, nominated for a couple of Oscars and adapted from the novel by Albert E. Idell isn’t bad.
  • Cloak and Dagger  –  Solid Fritz Lang noir film based on the non-fiction book about the OSS.
  • Madonna of the Seven Moons  –  By far the weakest of the Gainsborough films in the box set (see above), perhaps because it didn’t have James Mason.  Based on the novel by Margery Lawrence.
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice  –  Another book (this one by James M. Cain) that should have been made into a good post-Code film that wasn’t.  But don’t take that to mean this version, with John Garfield and a miscast Lana Turner is a classic – it’s a mid-range *** and no better.  The novel, like the film, is considerably over-rated.
  • The Yearling  –  Speaking of novels and films that are over-rated.  The novel won the Pulitzer when it really should have won the Newbury (it’s too much of a kids book).  The film was nominated for Best Picture (and is thus reviewed here) but is just a low-level *** film.
  • Cluny Brown  –  One of the later (thus, mediocre) Ernst Lubitsch films and the last one he completed.  It’s a coming-of-age story based on the novel by Margery Sharp.
  • Sister Kenny  –  Rosalind Russell earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of an Australian nurse who nobly fights against polio, based on the book by the nurse herself.  Russell is always worth watching, but the film barely is and she didn’t deserve the nomination.
  • Saratoga Trunk  –  Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman in an adaptation of an Edna Ferber novel which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
  • The Virginian  –  The fourth (and final) adaptation of the Wister novel that helped make Gary Cooper a star in 1929.  Stick with the Cooper version.
  • Humoresque  –  Now we’re in **.5 films.  Based on a novel by Fannie Hurst, whose Imitation of Life was a Best Picture nominee in 1934.  This is a Joan Crawford drama that’s not really very good.
  • Canyon Passage  –  A Tourneur Western based on the novel by Ernest Haycox.  Nominated for Best Song at the Oscars.
  • Caesar and Cleopatra  –  It’s Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh and it’s based on a Shaw play, so it should be better.  Yet, it isn’t.  Leigh is fine, but Rains just is too old for this role and it never works right.
  • Deception  –  It’s based on the play Monsieur Lamberthier by Louis Verneuil.  It reunites the main leads from Now Voyager (Davis, Rains, Henreid) with its director, but it mostly just falls flat.
  • Two Years Before the Mast  –  This book, by Richard Henry Dana is a 19th century classic of being at sea and holds a special place in my heart.  We read it in 4th grade and then spent the night aboard the Pilgrim at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point.  It was one of those wonderful school experiences that you remember forever.  That’s part of what makes this film so disappointing.  It throws out the story in the book for a fictional one and it isn’t good on pretty much any level.  I saw the film because of my experiences with the book, but you shouldn’t bother.
  • Tarzan and the Leopard Woman  –  We’re getting into the dregs of the Weissmuller films now.  You’d think they could have at least used some of the plot of the Burroughs novel Tarzan and the Leopard Men, but they couldn’t be bothered.  This only uses the Burroughs characters and makes up its (not very good) story.
  • The Chase  –  I honestly have no idea why I’ve even seen this film.  It wasn’t nominated for anything, the director isn’t I’m interested in, there are no stars I’m interested in and I haven’t read the source novel (The Black Path of Fear by Cornell Woolrich).  Yet, I have seen it.  It’s a noir film that stars Robert Cummings, so don’t go in expecting much.
  • The Razor’s Edge  –  I don’t like Maugham so I haven’t read the book.  I don’t much like the film, but you can read a review of it here.
  • The Bandit of Sherwood Forest  –  Based on the novel Son of Robin Hood by Paul A. Castleton.  I saw it because I’ll basically watch any Robin Hood film but you shouldn’t bother.  It’s mediocre, but not even close to the worst film of the year (I have 11 listed below it, but they’re all original).  The worst is Magnificent Doll, which I reviewed here and is easily too historically inaccurate to have ever been adapted from any book.