Saturday, November 26, 2011

In which the accessibility of old flicks has me increasingly cranky (or, please release this one on DVD asap, #1)

Lately this Old Movie Lover (OML) has hit upon a renewed interest in the black-and-whites (and sometimes Technicolors)--the original passion of which had hit a temporary lull--by way of these four things:

1.) by way of encountering a battered Mickey Rooney autobiography in a free bin that she really has no intention of reading but is pretty amused by the pretentious opening lines and, on second thought, might have to give in to after all so she can find out just exactly how much Mr. Andy Hardy is in love with himself. And how the hell he landed Ava Gardner.

2.) by way of finally reading Mary Astor's "A Life on Film", which could give any sleeping movie fan a jolt of rediscovered love

3.) by way of discovering her local library's selection of the classics far surpasses that of Netflix's streaming offerings (this OML would also like to take this opportunity to raise a fist to said movie "provider" and whisper, "damn you, you devil, and your new prices" into the cold night air, but with a hint of foreshadowing in her favor--preferably with, as always, a heartwarming, Capra-esque ending)

4.) by way of one of those unwarranted, known-only-to-movie-lovers desires to suddenly watch something as random as that pictured below and finding that not only can this OML not view it this very instant, but that she cannot view it next week, next month, possibly next year. (She would like to dissuade any unfavorable remarks towards Susan Hayward at this time, and contends that even you, David Thomson, while you may not know it yet, want to know the truth about Ada.)

By way of all of these things, this OML has hit the fingers to the keys in an attempt to track down all those great oldies she recorded from TCM to VHS in her youth, and that are now sitting static-infested and peppered and salted in a cold garage courtesy of her ever-understanding parents who kindly avoided the question, "so, they're ruined, can we chuck 'em now?" The wide-eyed, horror stricken expression that would naturally have followed such a suggestion was successfully averted.

But now, VCR-less, with boxes upon boxes of TCM recordings slipping from "it's Claudette Colbert, I love her!" to "'s either Claudette Colbert or Walter Huston, that much I know...wait...or Margaret O'Brien", this OML is increasingly at the mercy of the ever political DVD release. The unsatisfying state of the business to someone like her, who is still amazed that whoever the hell "they" are have not yet released every movie Lucille Ball has ever appeared in, however minuscule the part (she realizes this includes "Go Chase Yourself" and "Roman Scandals", among others, and asks in her polite way, do you want to make something of it?) But this OML has lost her train of thought, apologizes, and explains that she tends to get carried away when it concerns the fiery Ms. Ball. As well as the refreshingly insightful Ms. Astor, the ------ Ms. Stanwyck, who is too good for adjectives, and a certain, previously mentioned filmmaker who never fails to warm the cuckolds of this OML's heart. 

To finally return to her point, this OML would like to vent her frustration concerning the fact that no, she cannot watch every Joan Fontaine or Irene Dunne movie ever made on a crisply transferred DVD, nor can she watch this declared gem, starring a very young Elizabeth Taylor (which this OML believes is grounds enough for a Blu-ray release) without avoiding the unfortunate transfers by companies who have turned "public domain" into somewhat of a punishment. She flat out refuses to recapture the giddy chuckles this movie evoked years ago until she will no longer be distracted by the awful whites turned greens, the "now you hear it, now you don't" audio quality, and the depressing reminder that she can neither say nor do anything to urge the restoration + release process along. Except bitch and moan, like so many others, into the "pits of despair", i.e. the blogosphere.

This OML has finally reached her point, which, she realizes, could have been stated in a few short words and taken up much less of the reader's time: there are simply too many wonderful films out there that she cannot watch. Selfish, she'll grant you. Without merit...she'll let the reader be the judge, but asks him or her to consider the fact that one can make a quick, slipper-wearing trip to the closest market (that specializes in food, mind you) and pick up a movie starring Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear as conjoined twins, while those starring a classy Greer Garson doing very un-classy things are still waiting for their 15 (err, 99) minutes of fame. She asks the reader, is this fair? Is this right?

So, along with 1947's "Life With Father", this OML would like to plead her case for a decent release of our fair Julia misbehaving, along with several more to come that, while perhaps missing the awards, the remembered stars, or the big budgets to guarantee passage to every new technology, will, she promises, make the world a better place. 

(On a side note, this OML is fully aware that her sudden 3rd person writing style is, well, sudden, but seemed strangely appropriate. It also may attest to the fact that she has been frantically catching up on Self-Styled Siren posts as of late, and here she would like to point out that, firstly, considering the posts in question, one can hardly blame her, and, secondly, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Current Mood Is: bored....out of my f*cking mind

My new job pays me a tearfully low $8.51 an hour to sit, and stare, and try not to think about the uncomfortably close proximity of flesh-stripped, honest-to-goodness real life bodies just on the other side of a temporary wall covered in black fabric (it's as weird as it sounds). I am concerned how quickly I am becoming desensitized to such proximity, as I have been imitating Tallulah for nearly 6 hours now.

The good news is: ha! I'm blogging again. Sort of.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Saul Bass In My Bathroom Tile

If it wasn't for the pesky bobby pin that disappeared on the bathroom floor and forced me to a hands and knees position, I never would have noticed the resemblance the off-white tiles and gray grout have to Saul Bass's thick artistic tendencies. Admittedly, I don't know much about design. Admittedly, I don't really know what to say about Saul Bass's beautifully simple, sometimes stark to an uncomfortable degree, movie posters and titles of the 1950s and 60s, when movie posters/titles and art began to merge for the first time and shed the world of pulp (appropriately enough, at the same time the old studio system was losing its hold over movies and their approved subject matter). No, I really don't know what to say that probably hasn't already been said as far as art and expression and visual culture, except that Saul Bass was as much a part of the awakening '50s as any movie director.

The film that convinces me of this fact is The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), the movie that caused Otto Preminger to say "fuck it" and give us the first picture publicly unapproved by the industry and welcomed with open arms by a post-war movie public that was fed up with all the sugarcoating. The fact that it stars Frank Sinatra as a heroin addict, the all-American crooner, is another score for the gritty loving realists. The fact that he is nothing short of groundbreaking in the role of the struggling drummer and card dealer is icing on the cake.

The Man With the Golden Arm was made 10 years before The Sound of Music, but, like many movie lovers, I'm sure I'm not alone in associating Eleanor Parker with the perfectly coiffed Viennese baroness who nearly ruined things for Maria. How silly of us all, for it was Eleanor Parker who played a single working woman way back in 1944's One for the Book/ The Voice of the Turtle (it was not the more conventional, yet admittedly adorable elopement with Ronald Reagan at the end, but that spacious apartment she rented on her own, a rare occurrence in a pre-1950s film when wartime housing was often portrayed as patriotically shared, that appealed to a teenager ready to leave the nest). It was Eleanor Parker who endured prison life in the noir-esque Caged (1950), had an abortion behind her husband's back in Detective Story (1951), and suffered from abusive-resulting multiple personality disorder in Lizzie (1957). Ms. Parker was not partial to frou-frou roles, and even the slightly dark yet vulnerable undertones she gives off as Baroness Schraeder are evidence of this. So we really should have known, should have been completely aware of her ability to nail the pathetically fragile and deceitful wife of a drug addict to the falsely sacrificial cross. How appropriate that this luminous beaut with the breathy voice play such a role opposite Kim Novak's bosomy and supportive mistress. I can't help but think of Ingrid Bergman's barmaid Ivy knocking Lana Turner's Jekyll and Hyde good girl for a loop. She smartly fought for the role switch. She understood. And so did Parker. Of course, Parker's desperation, her paralyzing fear of loneliness and desertion make her a much more dangerous woman than fun-loving Ivy. And when she's found out at the end, when her treachery is naked and exposed, she plays it like a caged animal being taunted and poked by sticks, no longer the deceitful wife who quite literally drove her husband to the needle. She shrinks from taloned lioness to terrified kitten in a matter of seconds, and it is quite a thing to watch.

 The guilt, destruction, and fear oozing out of the film's performances (all top-notch) are validated by Saul Bass's title design. The first time his thick lines and jagged fingers appear to Elmer Bernstein's equally superb jazz soundtrack you know you are in for something dark, and hard, and deliciously new--the rawness of what this must have felt like to a 1955 audience has hardly aged with time, because I felt it too. The golden arm reference is two-fold: the arm of shooting up, and the arm of Frankie Machine's card dealing talents. Pulled in competing directions, Frankie is at once trying to withstand Zosch's whistle announcing guilt trips, avoid his dealer's persuasive (and creepy) promises of peace and comfort, land a job as a drummer sans shaky hands, and, ultimately, reject all of the destructive callings of his previous life while living in the same town and cavorting with the same crowd that continues to use and abuse him. He is broken, and crooked, and reaching out. The only periods of true peace and comfort he achieves are with Molly, equally broken and struggling--Novak makes it seem as if every high-heeled step Molly takes is steeped in hopelessness, and yet Frankie's well-being is a hopeless task she'll willingly fight for, so he fights for it too. The hard-to-watch cold turkey scene is proof enough of this.

Bass went on to create posters and titles for Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder, Hitchcock's Vertigo, Psycho, and North By Northwest, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and a slew of others you can peruse here. You can also see how new DVD releases are butchering Bass's talent here (if you, you know, want to be a little depressed by the state of marketing). But it was really Golden Arm that started it all, that announced a change in both movies and audiences, and that utilized fabulously inseparable artwork that still inspires today in the titles of Catch Me If You Can, Burn After Reading, and even the animated recesses of Monsters, Inc. Who would have thought an arm cut out of paper could work such wonders?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

15 Movie Questions

Though this has absolutely nothing to do with the following post, I feel I must share the fact that I am in a really good mood today. (And someone just walked by in a lime green Mad Hatter hat, and my mood has lifted even higher. Fun people come into toy stores.) Yes, I am at work on the most beautiful day Portland has had all year (we've broken 70! take that Seattle), yes, I've had an annoying headache since waking up, and, yes, my food stamp benefits don't come through for another week, but, damn it all, the sun is finally out in Portland, I work at a frakking toy store, and someone has just given me an excuse to make a list. And I love making lists. Especially when they pertain to movies. So here goes...

1. Movie you love with a passion.

I don't care what anyone says; not even the wonderful Self-Styled Siren can sway me with her perfectly strung words. I will defend Capra's You Can't Take It With You (1938) until my death. And possibly after that.

2. Movie you vow never to watch.

It just ain't gonna happen. I mean, look at all that pink.

3. Movie that literally left you speechless.

I first watched The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in a silent film class. I was left not only speechless, but with a lump in my throat the size of an apple, and tears that would not quit. I was literally shocked when the lights went up and I found myself surrounded by others. That is what a damn fine movie does. 

4. Movie you always recommend.

The Apartment (1960). It stands the test of time so well, caters to both sexes, and is a great way to prove black-and-white movies are fabulous. Plus, Lemmon and MacLaine are adorable.

5. Actor/actress you always watch no matter how crappy the movie.

I think I'm going to have to blatantly steal Rachel from The Girl with the White Parasol's answer. Yes, I definitely have to: Barbara Stanwyck and Jimmy Stewart. Why, oh why did they never do a picture together? Even when the movies suck (honestly, though, I can't think of any truly sucky movie that either was involved in), or they are not my cup of tea (both gained quite big reputations in the western genre, which I usually avoid like a family of cockroaches), still, they are incredible.

6. Actor/actress you don't get the appeal for.

Contemporarily speaking, I would have to go with Leonardo DiCaprio and Natalie Portman, who have a knack for simply playing themselves over, and over, and over again. If we're talking classics, though, which I obviously always am, up until last year it would have been: Robert Ryan....really? But then I saw The Set-Up and he was redeemed for all of those repulsive characters I have never been able to stand (and which I now agree attest to acting abilities after all). Until about 4 seconds ago it most definitely would have been: John Wayne....really? And then I came across this:

And now I am confused and bewildered and all alone and moving on to the next question.

7. Actor/actress, living or dead, you'd love to meet.

This is a tricky one because, honestly, I feel most actors are far too intense, hammy, awkward, or intimidating to actually enjoy a meeting with (I mean, what could you possibly say to Garbo, Hepburn, or Davis). I like to think Barbara Stanwyck and Cary Grant would be both fun and down to earth. I'd also give anything to hear Carole Lombard's infamously foul mouth.

8. Sexiest actor/actress you've seen. (Picture required)

Joel McCrea. (Paul Newman is just too easy.) The way this man lazily paws at Claudette Colbert and Jean Arthur is enough to make any woman quiver.

9. Dream cast.

Leading man: Cary Grant
Leading woman: Barbara Stanwyck
Anti-hero: Lew Ayres (too underrated)
Anti-heroine: Gloria Grahame
Not-too-sugary-cute-child: Peggy Ann Garner
Villainous duo: George Sanders & Anton Walbrook
Femme fatale: Olivia de Havilland (she should have been bad more often)
Comic relief: S.Z. Sakall & Ann Sothern
Bumbling detectives: William Powell & Irene Dunne (damn! why did they never do a film together? Wait, they did. Whew.)

10. Favorite actor pairing.

There are so many great ones out there, but I think what it really comes down to is this:

Grant and Dunne

11. Favorite movie setting.

Singing in the Rain (1952).

The 20s interpreted by the 50s. The talkies, the rain, the garb, and it looks like a lot of fun.

12. Favorite decade for movies.

Silly question.

13. Chick flick or action movie?

Ugh...really? That's the ultimatum? Chick flick, but only in the literal sense that applies to one movie, and one movie only:

14. Hero, villain, or anti-hero?

'Nuff said.

15. Black-and-white or color?

Despite a recent viewing of The Red Shoes, which dazzled to the point of inspiring a header picture change, I have to stick with my true love.

They just can't make 'em like they used to.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Red Shoes

I have avoided watching The Red Shoes (1948) for over a year now after a friend gifted me a copy. I avoided it for two years before that when I could have easily borrowed it from the same friend, I avoided it when I became fascinated with Kate Bush's album of the same title (saucy devil played by Miranda Richardson in the video), and I avoided it for several years before that when I still lived with my parents and TCM aired it repeatedly.

The fairytale, if you're not already aware, is horrific. No, scratch that. It's fucking horrific. Leave it to Hans Christian Andersen's warped imagination to scare the bejeezus out of you and make you want to cloud yourself in a pure, white veil, never looking in the mirror again, never wanting anything ever again but to be a good little girl and go to Heaven. In the fairytale, a selfish little girl, adopted by a rich woman after her mother dies, wants a pair of beautiful red dancing shoes. She gets them, and they take on a life of their own. They dance whether she wants to or not, and they never leave her feet. Night and day, rain or shine, they won't stop dancing. Eventually, the girl has her feet amputated (amputated! what kind of fairytale includes amputation?!?) but the shoes still do not stop--they continue to dance with her amputated feet inside them. Inside them.

Now, can you see why the childhood memory and imprinted visuals of this terrible tale has left me a bit anxious to see the film? But this is what happens when it's rainy and cold, when you've just set up your projector in a new apartment (which, of course, must be broken in with a visually fantastic movie), and when your friend comments on the "redness" of your apartment at the exact moment that you open the first box entitled "DVDs" and find The Red Shoes right on top, Moira Shearer's flawless en pointe staring back at you. This is what happens: you give in and watch the damn movie.

For the first ten minutes I was terribly nervous, and for the next 123 we were completely entranced (at least, I was completely entranced, and being so entranced I could not accurately determine if he was also just as entranced--because I was, you know, entranced). The acting was dreamlike; I was surprised to find that Ms. Shearer made only a handful of appearances on film, this being her most well-known. The infamous dance sequence, the actual ballet performance of The Red Shoes, was the most beautiful, the most disturbing, the most colorfully stimulating, and quite possibly the most wonderfully artistic dance sequence on film I've ever seen (though Cyd Charisse and the green dress are still up there, artistic merit warranted or not). So comfortable is this film, all of its parts and players, within the realm of art, that sometimes you can't tell if you're watching a surrealist painting in the works, or a double exposure of a sunset and flame. Or perhaps you have truly just teleported to a world where color and movement are on a level of existence we could not have imagined- except Powell and Pressburger could. And did. In 1948.

I can't promise with as equal conviction that this film will change your life as a friend who has assured me that watching The Wire will change mine (this has yet to be confirmed, or even tested), but it certainly changed my perceptions of early dance films--namely, that they could be strange and daring without sacrificing any of the Technicolor pow! associated with 1940s and 1950s musicals. Instead, The Red Shoes takes the pow! to new and unexplored terrain, as if introducing it to its own potential. Powell and Pressburger were famous for being ahead of their time, and that is entirely apparent in The Red Shoes. The tragedy underlying this film is not how life imitates art, though Vicki's fate is pretty gruesome, but that P & P never touched the musical/dance genre again. Maybe there was just nothing left to do with it after Vicki lay broken and still.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Farewell, lovely Liz.

"What do you expect me to do? Sleep alone?"
Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ms. Russell has left the stage. *sniff*

The first time I saw Ms. Russell was in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and my first thought was, "this woman kicks ass".
Jane Russell, 1921-2011
 A lovely tribute, here.

Monday, February 28, 2011

In Living (techni)Color, no. 3

Ms. Barbara Stanwyck

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

It's a Black & White Thing (a.k.a. Give Noir a Chance)

Bennett. Lang. Siodmak. Gilda. Bogie & Bacall. Bogie. Chandler. Gin. Guns. Money. Stanwyck. Stanwyck. Stanwyck. Third Men. Widmark. Lupino. Mann. Smoke. Despair. Grahame. Lake & Ladd. Big Heats. Big Streets. Big Combos. Mitchum. Lorre. Greenstreet. Savage. Hammer....

Three of us were in the car listening to Radiohead's latest album, In Rainbows. One friend complained that he missed the days of The Bends and "Creep", and the other professed his undying loyalty by claiming the band had evolved so beautifully over the years. I think I'm somewhere in the happy middle--I love the old stuff, and I love the new stuff. I can't say the same for film noir. As far as the cinema of despair and desperation and myself are concerned, it's black & white or nothing. It's fedoras and trench coats and cigarettes and cramped train compartments and gin and venetian blinds and all of it--or nothing at all. Don't hand me Bullitt, or The French Connection, or Memento, because I'm not buying it. What makes noir so special is that it came and it went, and we can never have it back. Like cigarettes and Nick Charles's drinking. Unless, of course, we keep it around long enough to keep going back to.

If asked why I love film noir so much, I doubt I could come up with an answer to satisfy the noir-virgin. I would just tell them to watch Road House and The Third Man and In a Lonely Place and expect them to get it because those are the films that made me get it. Noir made Mitchum vulnerable. Made Lupino belong. Made Widmark set for life.

Younger folks have an aversion to black & white movies. Actually, so did my grandmother, who grew up on them, so let's just say that black & white films tend to get a bad rap. It wasn't until I caught an episode of I Love Lucy while house-sitting for my mother's co-worker that the assumption that black & white = old, dated, and thus not worthwhile, shifted. I was 17 years old, and no one had ever made me laugh the way Lucille Ball did. I knew I had been missing out, and I have left no black & white stone unturned ever since. Because Ms. Ball supported many of the greats (Ginger Rogers, Tracy and Hepburn) she was the perfect introduction to those pre-Technicolor days. (Her flaming do wasn't such a bad introduction to Technicolor, either.) Eventually, I came across her dabbles in noir: 12 Crowded Hours, and Lured, and The Dark Corner. And I knew I had been missing a stark and vulnerable truth that only lies in what the French termed film noir.

How ironic that my attraction to noir, the genre/movement/style (will there ever be a final consensus on this?) of loneliness and desperation, was sparked by a zany, screwball redhead. I don't know anyone who loves noir.  (Save perhaps one.) But sometimes a friend will let me drag them to Noir City, or they'll unknowingly start quoting Mike Hammer lines with a smirk and a grin on the walk home (after professing they did not enjoy Kiss Me Deadly, mind you), or sometimes they'll turn to me, perhaps right after Alida Valli walks past Joseph Cotten without so much as a glance in his direction, with that satisfied look of knowing that they too just saw greatness.

50 per cent of all films made before 1951 are gone forever. If we are to agree that film holds significant cultural and historical value, this value only lasts as long as the film survives, and as long as it is seen. Paolo Cherchi Usai likened the film preservationist to a "physician who has accepted the inevitability of death even while he continues to fight for the patient's life". Poetically pessimistic, and he may have a point. But, odds are, with a physician as determined as that, some of those patients are going to make it.

Please join us in donating to the Film Noir Foundation.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Ring Out the Old Year, Ring in the New, Ring-A-Ding...ah, nevermind.

The other day I was struck by the sudden urge to revamp this ol' blog of mine. Changing your blog can be like changing your hair, or rearranging your furniture, and I felt like such a change was needed to celebrate the New Year, or make official this spreading feeling that 2011 is going to be the year of greatness, and change, and possibility. Or, maybe that was just an excuse to avoid job searching, and washing the dishes, and doing the laundry. Either way, I spent hours perusing these new fangled templates Blogger now has: abstract background images (red curtains? no, that doesn't quite work, though I appreciate the suggestion of a movie theater- Oh, Castro, I miss you!), raindrops (uhh...), motorcycles (no, thank you), and on and on and on. Then there are the overwhelming choices of color, font, font size, layouts, borders, etc. etc. And while I tried several of these out, and even liked a few, comparing them to my blog's current "look" just made me miss the white on black noir-ness, the rather dramatic borders, the wide layout that allows for bigger (and better) images, and the color scheme that took me months to work out.  And then I thought, fuck it! I like the way things are. (And I am spending way too much time on this.)

So, I raise my glass of pinot and make a toast to un-change, or at least to realizing that things are not so bad, and rather quite good when you take notice of them:

(Btw, SPOILER! Seriously, watch the movie instead.)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

When They Were Youngsters, no. 1

Pre-Tracy, of course: Katharine Hepburn & Joel McCrea

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Noir City 2011

Wouldn't you know it: the first Noir City I'm unable to attend in 4 years, and Eddie Muller & Co. create the most fantastically delicious program ever. (Can't you just tell by that cover photo?) I told myself last year when I moved from the Bay Area, don't freak out! I reassured myself that I would come back every winter for Noir City, no matter what the cost, fully prepared in heels and lipstick. Unfortunately, I've had to face the harsh realization that what they're saying is right: the economy has gone down the drain. Perhaps if I had Ann Savage as a hitchhiking buddy, or Joel McCrea as a fellow train-hopping hobo--heck, I would even take a lift from Richard Widmark--perhaps then I would risk the trek. No, I can only do my best to stifle the painful blow that I'll be missing not one, not two, but three Barbara Stanwyck films (salt in an open wound), a slew of goodies by Litvak, Preminger, Siodmak, Renoir, Cukor, Lang, & Mann (many not available on DVD; here comes that salt), and one of the most chilling noir masterpieces there ever was, Gaslight (1944) (okay, now it's just plain acid). No, I can only ignore the sting, the devil-may-care urge to buy a plane ticket and see what happens, and hope that you folks in the Bay take advantage of this year's festival with the complete understanding that you are lucky sons-of-bitches.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Lean's Twist: No Place for Children

I've always associated David Lean with those grand, sweeping, drawn-out epics (film's equivalent to Tolstoy?) and pretty much avoided him. I've never been able to sit through Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in its entirety, and A Passage to India (1984) left me a bit cold. Judy Davis's performance was unusually odd and stifled, and I wasn't surprised to read that she and Lean were regular head-butters. Doctor Zhivago (1965) was beautiful, but not enough to balance the scales in Lean's favor and make me crave more. Luckily, though, and spurred on by my absolute love for Brief Encounter's (1945) simplicity and black-and-white cinematography, my opinion has changed. (Not concerning the epics, but in the realization that Lean's earlier films are works I can appreciate.)

I was lucky enough to catch both Hobson's Choice (1954) and Madeleine (1950) (both Victorian-noirs in the vein of Gaslight [1944] and The Spiral Staircase [1945]) at the PFA's David Lean tribute last year, but it is really his films from the 1940s that provide a wonderful antithesis to his post-'60s extravaganzas. (Two other greats: The Passionate Friends [1949], a sort of companion piece to Brief Encounter, and Great Expectations [1946].) True, Noel Coward probably deserves a lot of credit for this, as he collaborated with Lean on four films from the '40s (including Brief Encounter, which was based on a Coward play), but within the first few frames of Oliver Twist (1948) it's apparent that Lean is quite capable of conducting his own electric and cinematic wizardry.

Of all the film versions of Dickens's Oliver Twist, Lean's is the most beautiful, the most devastating, and the most atmospheric. You can tell that both Carol Reed and Roman Polanski were aware of its importance. Acknowledging that several key scenes from Lean's Oliver had already been portrayed to perfection, both directors chose to include almost exact replicas in their versions. (The boys eating porridge, and looking on, half-starved, as the adults gorge themselves on a fine feast.) Interestingly enough, though, both directors also excluded Lean's infamous opening scene of Oliver's mother arriving at the workhouse. This scene is perhaps the best film opener I've seen. Amid a violent storm: close-ups of twisted, thorny branches, a pregnant young girl clutching the prison-like gates of the workhouse, shadows swallowing her up. The rain, the mud, everything working against her. She is doomed, but, of course, we can't help hope for a miracle.

The entire opening sequence was conceived by Lean's second wife, Kay Walsh, who plays Nancy. Nancy is an interesting character, and used very differently by Lean and Reed. The relationship between Oliver and Nancy is more developed in Reed's Oliver! (1968), however, I can't help but feel that the suspenseful tavern scene in Lean's version does more to establish Nancy's character than the extra screen time given to her by Reed. Lean (and Walsh's) Nancy is more complex. She's more crass, more beaten down, and more concerned with her own survival as the only woman amongst a world of orphan boys and thieving men (both Reed and Polanski give Nancy a girlfriend to hang with; Lean leaves her on her own; I'm not sure which was true to Dickens). Walsh's Nancy also doesn't have the advantage of a musical number to unite her with the used and abused Oliver. You're not quite sure where she stands, but finally recognizing Walsh's transition from indifferent spectator to sacrificial protector is phenomenal. Oliver Reed's portrayal of Bill Sikes in Oliver! is much more successful, creepy/on-the-edge/disturbing-wise, than Robert Newton's in Lean's version, but Walsh's performance (especially in that wonderfully suspenseful tavern scene) hardly allows Newton's less-threatening Bill to detract from her terrifying plight. This is the moment when you really question what you've seen of Bill Sikes, and take note of that underlying violence that's been scratching at the surface the entire time. (And adds a whole new level of horror to his treatment of Nancy later on.) But Nancy is Oliver's mother re-born. Another woman who will die so he can live. She knows it without fully accepting it.
Where Reed favors comedy (his is a musical, after all), Lean favors tragedy and borrows many elements from noir. Lean introduces us to Oliver: a frail, trembling, literally half-starved-looking young boy scrubbing the cold floors all alone. Reed's Oliver is a cherub (his face seems to glow), and, despite tattered rags and bare feet, he is at least surrounded by fellow orphans and friends. Another major difference between the two is the portrayal of Fagin, performed by a pre-famous Alec Guinness in Lean's version, and Ron Moody in Reed's version. Moody's Fagin is goofy, harmless, and selfish while still concerned for Oliver's well-being. When he teaches Oliver to pickpocket, he does it with the full understanding that the lesson should be fun and entertaining, and he relishes Oliver's smiles and giggles. He's not a bad guy, just trying to get along in a harsh reality. Guinness's portrayal is very different, and, I assume, more true to Dickens. His selfishness is discomforting, and he never lets you rest in trying to figure him out. He refuses an understanding that he is either purely selfish, and thus dangerous, or that he is pathetic, and sad, and desperate, and perhaps even more dangerous.

More so than both Reed and Polanski (whose version was a complete dud) David Lean brings Dickens's story to life as a dark and deadly world in which children are at the mercy of the corrupted. At one point in Reed's film, Oliver bows to Fagin with respect. It's treated as a joke, and the other boys laugh at him. In Lean's film, you understand that such behavior has been beaten into him.