Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bette Davis Month Bonus: Deception (1946)

It always helps when Bette Davis has strong male co-stars to match her energy; it never fails to disappoint when I see a name like George Brent in the opening credits of a Davis movie. Deception gives her not one but two strong actors to share scenes with: Paul Henreid plays the love of her life, a cello player of indeterminate European origin, and Claude Rains plays her former lover, an arrogant composer. Davis' pianist Christine is caught between the two, as she longs to be with Henreid's Karel, from whom she was separated during World War II, but is indebted to Rains' Alex, who provided her with a comfortable lifestyle while they carried on an illicit (for reasons that aren't quite clear) affair. It's a melodramatic concept that's played without overdoing it too much, thanks to the prodigious talents of the main actors (all of whom co-starred in Now, Voyager in 1942).

Davis plays a part somewhere between a romantic lead and a femme fatale - she's not really dangerous until the end of the film, although as the title suggests, she's a bit devious, keeping her relationship with Alex a secret once she reconnects with Karel. She spends most of the movie desperately trying to keep Karel from finding out about her past with Alex (even though she and Alex are no longer intimate), and Rains is enormously entertaining as the spiteful and wounded playboy who toys with his ex once he finds out that she's thrown him over for this wholesome musician. Henreid has to play the oblivious straight man much of the time, but he too gets to express jealousy and hurt as Karel tries to rebuild his relationship with Christine.

There's possibly some Holocaust-related subtext going on here as well, although it was hard for me to figure out what exactly Karel was supposed to have done during the war in Europe. But Christine mentions having taken on a "professional" (i.e., American) name, and they were obviously torn apart by the war. Part of her guilt certainly comes from having gotten away to America while Karel was trapped in Europe, in addition to the guilt of her romance with Alex. The whole thing comes to a head in a sort of silly way, but Davis stays fairly restrained, and the ending is surprisingly unresolved for a Hollywood movie of the time period. There's enough moral ambiguity and anguish on all sides to make the story seem complex and tragic rather than overwrought.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior

It's been several years since I last watched Criminal Minds, CBS' extremely popular, extremely grim crime procedural about an FBI profiling team that investigates serial killings and other gruesome crimes. I found it so off-putting and distasteful when it first started that I never bothered to return to it, even as it became more and more popular. Unlike a lot of procedurals that function as sort of innocuous background noise, Minds always struck me as especially repugnant with the way it wallows in the ugliest, most debased crimes, spending time on the nastiest details without offering any redeeming insight.

And I'm willing to acknowledge that maybe it's improved, although judging from the first two episodes of spin-off Suspect Behavior (which as far as I can tell is just the same show with different characters), things haven't changed a bit. Suspect does all of the things I hated about Minds when I first saw it, coming up with the most unpleasant, pseudo-shocking details possible for its crimes, and luridly glorifying the nastiness even as its characters work to investigate it. It's appalling that a network show can blithely depict a victim with his eyes gouged out and blood running down his face, yet MTV gets boycotted for showing teen characters having sex on Skins (but that's another discussion entirely).

With stars including Forest Whitaker and Janeane Garofalo, Suspect is like Squandered Potential: The TV Show, and the entire cast is stuck with awkward, portentous dialogue, all of which is delivered in the same hushed, somber tone. Even the hints of character development are dour and off-putting: One agent is provisionally back in the field after having killed a child molester while apprehending him. Only Kirsten Vangsness, doing double duty on both Minds shows, brings a little levity to things as the exposition-factory researcher back at headquarters, but she mostly just seems out of place. For Minds fans, Suspect offers more of the same, but I can't possibly think of that as anything but a bad thing.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on CBS.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphilia: The Thirteenth Guest

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Thoroughly insubstantial and frequently annoying, the cheapo 1932 murder mystery The Thirteenth Guest is really only notable for a spunky early performance from Ginger Rogers, who plays an heiress targeted for murder by one of her greedy relatives. Thirteen years earlier, her father had a dinner party with 13 guests, except the 13th guest ... never showed up. Also, her father dropped dead at the party and her mother insisted on leaving everything exactly as it was and immediately moving out of the house. So we've got a creepy old house, a mysterious presence and a killer with an elaborate method of murdering people (he electrocutes them via a mechanism attached to the telephone, then poses the bodies where they would have sat at the dinner party).

It sounds kind of menacing and eerie, but there's basically no tension, and director Albert Ray plays things so lightly that characters rarely even seem to be in danger. The main character is a rakish private detective played with a bit of sparkle by Lyle Talbot, and he has some nice chemistry with Rogers. But the characters are both one-note, and Ray keeps cutting to an irritatingly dim-witted detective as some sort of comic relief. The plot is full of holes and wraps up pretty much at random, and no one seems particularly put out by this whole rash of grisly murders. The killer in his weird hooded outfit spying on a victim while getting ready to pull the electrocution lever is an appealingly grim image, but like everything else in this movie, it's used to basically no effect. (Watch the whole thing yourself at the Internet Archive.)

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Bette Davis Month Bonus: The Old Maid (1939)

I hadn't really given it much thought before, but sibling rivalry (specifically of the sisterly variety) is a prominent recurring theme in Bette Davis movies. A fierce screen presence even when dealing with mediocre material, Davis often steamrolls over her co-stars, and it takes a strong sparring partner for her to come off as evenly matched. Luckily, Davis played sister to the likes of Olivia de Havilland, Joan Crawford and even herself (twice), and when she had a worthy adversary, the results were often thrilling. Her counterpart in The Old Maid is Miriam Hopkins, and while the two reportedly had a bitter rivalry and were constantly trying to outdo each other, Davis clearly comes out as the winner, overshadowing Hopkins even as she gives a remarkably internal performance.

Davis' Charlotte and Hopkins' Delia aren't actually sisters, but they might as well be: They're cousins raised together by their grandmother, and they have a very sisterly relationship. Delia is the favorite, the older cousin and the one who has her life on track. She marries a wealthy man with good standing after ditching her flaky boyfriend (perpetual Davis co-star George Brent), and has a couple of kids before her husband dies in a tragic accident. Charlotte, meanwhile, picks up Delia's leftovers by getting knocked up by Delia's shiftless ex, right before he goes off and gets himself killed during the Civil War. Delia gets to be self-righteous and superior about living the better life and raising Charlotte's illegitimate child (who never knows her true parentage), while Charlotte plays the martyr, always reminding Delia how she sacrificed all of her own happiness for the sake of her daughter.

In short, it's a bunch of typically overwrought melodrama, and Hopkins plays it to the hilt. Davis, however, keeps things much more low-key, and conveys Charlotte's anguish with her eyes better than Hopkins manages with her entire body. The woe-is-me stuff gets awfully overdone after a while, especially in the movie's final section as Charlotte's daughter is grown up, about to get married herself and acting like a whiny ungrateful brat. In between the silliness, The Old Maid makes some pointed comments on the hypocritical sexual mores of the Civil War era, although really a movie set in 1939 about a woman with an illegitimate daughter could feature many of the same plot points. Most of its social relevance gets drowned in over-emoting anyway, but Davis manages to make Charlotte's emotions feel earned all the way through until the end.