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Sinatra at 80: Pal Frank

In the course of working on a cabaret show commemorat­ing Lorenz Hart’s 100th birthday, I returned with trepida­tion to the 195 7 Columbia film of Pal Joey, with Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, and Kim Novak. It was just as lame as I remembered, if not worse. But Sinatra was much better than I had recalled — in fact, everyone else seemed lifeless and pale in comparison, as if traumatized by his infamous on-set be­havior.

Sinatra was born to play Joey. In the stage version, Joey is a nightclub hoofer. He had to be — Gene Kelly originated the role. But a nightclub singer is a lot more sensible, and who better to fit that sleazy bill than Frank Sinatra? I always felt MGM was the wrong studio for him. It was too re­spectable, conventional, decorous, and pol­ished for Frank’s street-fighter approach to performance. He looks strained in the movies in which he was teamed with the more experienced Kelly, playing a young innocent from the boroughs. (Give me a break!) It didn’t read for a minute, al­though he wasn’t a complete stiff, like some fellow crooners (Perry Como, Dick Haymes, Johnnie Ray). Still, put Frank at Harry Cohn’s studio and you’ve got a meet­ing of minds — no camouflage here, no hypocrisy. They’re both such crumbs.

Cohn had bought the screen rights to Pal Joey back in 1944, as a vehicle for Kel­ly and Rita Hayworth, the team that had just scored big for Cohn in Cover Girl. But MGM wanted too much money for an­other loan out of Kelly, and the project was shelved for 13 years, by which time Frank was bigger than Gene and poor Rita had to play the older woman rather than the in­genue for which she was once intended. The whole show — script and lyrics (thank you, Sammy Cahn, for nothing) — was strangely bowdlerized. Vera Simpson, the Hayworth part, was made a wealthy wid­ow and former burlesque stripper instead of a married society dame. On the other hand, Kim Novak’s ingenue became a naïve chorus girl (is there such an animal? I mean outside Hollywood backstage musicals?) instead of a naïve stenographer, so she could wear revealing outfits.

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The film’s opening is deceiving. You think the picture might be fun. A siren blares over the Columbia logo, and the first shot tracks a police car racing to catch a train. Two cops have Frank/Joey in tow, and one of them tells him, “You entertain­ers are all alike. You think you own every dame in town.” (Well, don’t they? Didn’t Frank?) They hurl him onto the train as it pulls out of the station and the credits come up. Wow.

The locale has been moved from gritty Chicago to pretty San Francisco, the first no­ticeable mistake. Already the story has been softened, though Frank always looks great on location. Maybe because he wasn’t a true movie star, he never looked quite natural on a set — his small frame shrinking in the hot­house atmosphere of a soundstage. But put him in a raincoat and trademark fedora and have him walk the streets of metro­politan America, and he comes alive on screen. His cockiness and swag­ger make sense on a street.

The minute he steps into the Barbary Coast Club, however, we are too obviously on a Los Ange­les set, and his star wattage goes way down as we get the first real taste of Joey Evans: weasely, low-rent opportunist. As fascinating as this kind of character is and despite the movie’s mellowing of him, Frank can’t make him lovable, can’t share his humanity with the audience. Except when he sings. He has no trouble captur­ing Joey’s unsavory qualities. Nobody laughs at his jokes (according to Shirley MacLaine, no one laughs at Sinatra’s either, though he keeps cracking them, which sort of earns our admiration), and he treats every woman as an object of scorn or sex­ual gratification. In fact, the only warmth Joey ever displays is toward his dog, Snuffy.

Snuffy!

Anyway, here he is on stage: “This next song is dedicated to all the saloon keepers who have blown their liquor li­cense — “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.'” Nobody laughs. Then he starts to sing — ­with just a piano, rubato. He looks askance at the mirrored ball, moves around the stage marking his territory and getting a feel for the club. Once again, Frank Sinatra comes alive, graceful, supernal. Every movement is measured: he closes his eyes, throws back his head, and though his singing voice is an extension of his speak­ing voice, now it has conviction. Now, somehow, he’s suddenly a decent human being. When the song kicks into tempo, that spirit is still there; he doesn’t sacrifice his sincerity to swing. Even the looks he gives the dub owner and band can’t detract from the song. He’s hired.

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We next hear him sing at a charity ball at Vera Simpson’s sumptuous Nob Hill mansion. Joey wears a red dinner jacket, just a member of the band sitting on the side, waiting for his cue. He gets up, shrugs his right shoulder, adjusts the microphone, and sings “There’s a Small Hotel” in a so­ciety dance-band arrangement that can’t di­minish the pure magnetism of the moment. In a way, it’s easier to examine his extraor­dinary technique when it’s set off by a con­ventional background, gleaming as a dia­mond would in a plain metal box.

Frank was 42 when he made Pal Joey, maybe a bit too old for the part, but his age made the character’s hollow, lonely life that much more pathetic. While singing, he’s al­ways checking out the “mice” — his quaint reference for desirable women. He sees Ri­ta Hayworth on the dance floor and sings directly to her. He’s composed, confident, and unfortunately appealing. He has her number. In fact, Rita (who is undermined throughout the picture by unflattering mid-range shots and make-up so inept Cohn might have slathered it on himself) even allows him to humiliate her into doing a bump-and-grind. He pulls the same trick with Kim Novak. “I got plans for that doll. Ring-a-ding plans. This little mouse takes a special kind of baiting.”

“You’re wasting your time. She ain’t goin’ for it,” the club owner fires back.

“They all do.”

He walks on stage and sings “I Could Write a Book” — pulling Kim from the wings to sing the last chorus with him. Works every time. Though at first resistant, she finally caves in and loves it. With any oth­er singer, the seduction might be less than convincing — a threadbare musical-come­dy device. But because it’s Frank, the scene is believable and lethal. She’s doomed.

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Yet the “piece of resistant” as Joey puts it, is “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and it’s no ac­cident that this was the hit of the movie. The song was interpolated from another show, Babes in Arms, nearly 20 years earli­er, and in 1939 the word tramp had a dif­ferent connotation than in the repressive 1950s: a Bohemian vagabond — as Hart’s lyric makes dear — rather than a slut. The song was conceived to be sung by a woman (Mitzi Green introduced it with much suc­cess) as an ode to her own independence. But Frank knew what he was doing; he had already recorded the number for an album, but delayed its release so that it would have greater impact in the film.

Rita Hayworth comes to the Barbary Coast Club and asks Joey for a song. The chairs have already been placed on the ta­bles and the band has retired to the kitchen, but this is rich Mrs. Simpson, so they all hop to their marks. Frank starts singing at the piano and the first time Rita hears the word tramp, directed right at her, she flinches. This is seduction through insult. Frank stands up, shoves the piano away with his foot, exhaling cigarette smoke — a gesture ripe for parody, though he carries it off with such command that you don’t really mind how incredibly stupid it is.

He and the song are fantastic, the lat­ter completely transformed to serve his pur­pose, a stroke of genius. Rita calls him “Beauty,” and his songful seduction is in­deed a thing of beauty — cold and glittering and perfect. He has passed the test. And what’s his reward? He gets to follow Rita Hayworth out of the club carrying her wrap. Who says it isn’t a matriarchal soci­ety? After that flawlessly realized and forceful scene, the film slides down one of San Francisco’s steeper hills. Still, in that in­delible moment, Rita Hayworth’s reaction is ours. She illuminates why a strong, in­dependent woman has put up with so much bad behavior. This crumb could sing — beatifically. ❖

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Jimmy Stewart and Vertigo are Hanging in There as the Best Movie Ever

As with many masterpieces, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo yielded a mostly lukewarm reaction upon its May 1958 release. Variety dismissed it as “basically only a psychological murder mystery.” In 1973, Hitchcock took the film out of circulation; his estate did not re-distribute it until a decade later, around the same time it finally entered Sight & Sound‘s 10-best-films-of-all-time list.

Two years ago, it knocked Citizen Kane from the top slot. The new 4K restoration of Vertigo — which runs at the Film Forum from October 24 through 30 — removes some of the 1996 restoration’s cheesiest blunders (an overkill of seagull cries in the San Francisco Bay scenes, for instance).

The color scheme — the eerie cornflower hue of the dawn sky in the riveting rooftop chase, the funereal grays and browns of the perpetually haunted James Stewart’s suits — is rendered more piercing. But what still makes Vertigo so remarkable isn’t just its frequently copied visual trickery — most notably, the dolly zoom shot, closing up on an object while pulling away from it, to underscore the acrophobia plaguing Stewart’s ex-detective. It’s the dramatization of Hitchcock’s obsession with San Francisco as a phobic’s nightmare, with its craggy, steep streets and winding highways.

Stewart’s sad, stooped aura — his anguished, tongue-wagging face looks too small on his long-legged frame — and his begging blue eyes make you forgive the torment and even sadism he inflicts upon the blonde, then brunette, and then blonde again Kim Novak.

Vertigo — not Hitchcock’s most suspenseful work but certainly his most tragic — remains a parable on not playing God: with the past, with your lover, or even your own impotence.

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Beautiful Darling: A Too Shallow Look at the Far More Than Skin-Deep Warhol Superstar

One of Warhol’s last superstars, Candy Darling—born James Slattery in Massapequa Park, Long Island, in 1944—idolized Kim Novak, herself one of the final big stars built up by the studio system. Many of those interviewed in James Rasin’s polite but poorly structured documentary narrowly contend that the great tragedy of Candy (who died in 1974) was her deluded insistence on living in a fantasy fueled by the movie-fan magazine Photoplay; at least Paul Morrissey, who directed Candy in Flesh (1968) and Women in Revolt (1971), acknowledges her intelligence when he says, “She didn’t live in the past. She was a humorist.” Yet Rasin does not (or could not) show clips from either of those films; he includes only a brief excerpt from the trailer of Women in Revolt. Denied the opportunity to see Candy at her best, simultaneously mocking and paying homage to golden-age glamour, viewers instead get too much of Jeremiah Newton, a close friend of the actress’s and guardian of her papers, personal effects, and ashes (and one of Beautiful Darling’s producers). Rasin organizes his film around Newton’s efforts to have Candy’s remains buried with his mother’s in upstate New York—a tedious, maudlin thread that the blond performer, who famously posed in full glam in her hospital bed as she was dying from cancer caused by the toxic hormone pills she’d ingested, surely would have parodied.

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Spellbound

Twenty years ago, I directed an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The assignment came completely out of the blue (a producer had seen a short film of mine and liked the way I “moved the camera”) and so—after a few manic days of preparation—I found myself lifted out of the obscurity of Toronto’s independent-film scene and in front of Martin Landau, the legendary actor who was starring in the episode.

In this episode, special-effects artists stage an emergency fire in a devious plan to make their evil boss, played by Landau, jump to his death. It was a lot of fun to shoot, but what I remember most vividly was the time I spent with Landau talking about what it was like to actually work with Hitchcock. I couldn’t believe that I was directing an actor who appeared in North by Northwest, and Martin certainly didn’t disappoint me. I listened enraptured to stories about everything from Hitchcock’s personal mannerisms to his lens choices.

Weeks later, as I was watching the studio’s final version of this episode, I was stunned to find that Alfred Hitchcock was actually in my movie. All the authentic Hitchcock intros from the original series had been colorized and re-edited, so that the “master of suspense” had been recycled for the remake. Somehow, through the weird alchemy of imagination and digital effects, it seemed as though Hitch were drolly referring to a show he had absolutely nothing to do with.

And this, of course, is one of the most enduring legacies of this extraordinary film artist. After countless books, essays, exhibitions, retrospectives, and dialogues (the Hitchcock/Truffaut conversations are one of the most remarkable documents in film appreciation), the most disturbing artifact of Hitchcock’s output may well be the image he made of himself. No other commercial filmmaker has so meticulously implicated their own directorial persona in their work.

Certainly, this cost the director in terms of his reputation. Responding to the indifference to Hitchcock’s output in the early ’60s, Truffaut commented that the director’s “genius for publicity was equaled only by that of Salvador Dalí” and that Hitchcock had been “victimized in American intellectual circles because of his facetious response to interviewers and his deliberate practice of deriding their questions.” For the longest period of time, I found it upsetting that the experience of watching my favorite films was punctuated by the Hitchcockian money shot—that odd moment when the director needed to cross the frame.

For all his status as the “master of suspense,” Hitchcock was first and foremost the master of self-consciousness. He was, in the best sense of the word, all about show. He showed us how his characters wanted to present themselves, how he wanted to show them showing us who they were, and—if he could show himself off in the process, then that became part of the project. These are the sequences and moments that define Hitchcock’s brilliance.

Many movies have used film directors as characters, yet Hitchcock—while never referring to the actual mechanics of film production—has given us the most compelling and complex depiction of why someone would need to direct. I’m thinking of the scene in Vertigo where Scottie takes Judy to the dress shop and tries to costume her as Madeleine. The expression on James Stewart’s face as he forces this identity on the unwilling Kim Novak is one of the most astonishingly rendered depictions of obsession I have ever seen. And it is in this moment that the viewer is truly able to see Hitchcock cross the frame.

“I just want an ordinary simple gray suit,” Scottie says, as he rejects a pale imitation of his beloved’s garments.

“The gentleman seems to know what he wants,” the shopkeeper responds.

Later, as Kim Novak’s new shoes click seductively toward the camera lens, the viewer gets to know exactly what Hitchcock wants. No other director has ever put his audience in the direct line of fetishistic pursuit, made them want to see something so badly that it can tear apart all reason and sensibility. We are all implicated in this mad chase of the true Madeleine, enraptured by the sheer thrill of the elaborate psychological reconstruction. Hitchcock, through his creative genius, is illustrating the perverse core of the creative act—making something happen that isn’t really there, and making us all believe in the process.


Atom Egoyan is the director of Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, and most recently, Where the Truth Lies.