In the final reckoning, people are never that creative. That’s true even when they think they’re changing history. The explorer who goes to the ends of the earth is usually after fame, money, or both. The investor will ignore every warning sign about a too-good-to-be-true opportunity until it’s too late and he’s lost everything. The genius inventor announcing that he’s creating an epochal advancement in technology will turn out to have some fairly mundane reasons for doing so.
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The Italian anthology Love in the City was conceived by Cesare Zavattini as a “journal” to investigate taboo aspects of its title: prostitution, suicide, marriage agencies, poor single mothers, and girl-watching that amounts to harassment. As a neo-realist, Zavattini preferred the idea of non-actors playing themselves in more or less documentary enactments of their lives, and the resulting film exists in a nether region between reality and fiction. Although the film wasn’t successful enough to warrant further installments, it’s an intriguing capsule that demonstrates the styles and interests of its young directors.
For example, Michelangelo Antonioni’s segment is so Antonioni, it slaps you upside the head. He interviews people who attempted suicide, gathering them in an artificial manner against a white backdrop and sometimes playing “themselves” in various environments. On display is Antonioni’s visual instinct for staging people, primarily women, against arid and decaying urban settings in a manner where one reinforces the other. The people seem expressions of and products of their landscape, while the landscape projects their alienation writ large.
Although the plot includes a bank robbery and brief appearances by Apache Indians and Billly the Kid, Strange Lady in Town is a largely unsensational, untraditional, anecdotal, friendly, visually pleasing, and socially progressive western rooted in the time and place of 1880 Santa Fe, New Mexico. The film opens with a horse-drawn wagon popping a wheel in the wide-open space of the Cinemascope screen while Frankie Laine croons the title tune. A black-clad woman with a parasol traipses over to some cowpokes for help and introduces herself, to their surprise, as a lady doctor from Boston. She makes herself at home and charms them immediately, as she will swoop in by personality and expertise to charm most of the citizens of her new home.
The “strange lady” is Dr. Julia Winslow Garth (Greer Garson, all class and English accent and orange hair, and reportedly beset with appendicitis during filming). Those charmed include the Catholic monk next door (Walter Hampden) who runs a hospital for the Mexicans and Indians, and a striking tomboy-ish cowgirl called Spurs (Lois Smith), who’s in love with Julia’s brother David, a charming Cavalry soldier who’s nothing but trouble. He’s played by Cameron Mitchell, who, in typical Hollywood casting, is convincing as all of that except Garson’s brother.
In 1947, Susan Hayward starred in two films produced by Walter Wanger. Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, a critical and popular success, scored her first Oscar nomination. The Lost Moment, based on a Henry James story, flopped in a big way; it was the real smash-up. No surprise that Hayward thereafter eschewed literary period items and concentrated on spunky heroines in gritty contemporary stories. The film’s failure may also explain why it’s the only film directed by Martin Gabel, who served as associate producer on the other film. It’s possible that we lost a very interesting director, as we can judge now that Gabel’s film is on DVD and Blu-Ray in a very good-looking print—these are lost moments, indeed.
After World War II, Hollywood studios began making films in England and elsewhere in Europe. Available on demand from Fox Cinema Archives are two such items of the early ‘50s: No Highway in the Sky and 5 Fingers, both wonderfully civilized suspense films.
James Stewart plays perfectly in his element as Theodore Honey, an absent-minded American “boffin” (as the limeys call scientific chaps) testing aircraft metal fatigue in No Highway in the Sky. He’s introduced with bumbling eccentricities, such as forgetting which house he lives in and raising his plain, retiring daughter (Janette Scott) as a lonely genius. It’s all well-played, amusing, and disarming. The suspense begins when he realizes he’s on an airplane that’s about to crash, according to his calculations. He warns the crew and a glamorous movie star (Marlene Dietrich, basically playing herself), and they all await the outcome tensely.
// Notes from the Road
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