Tuesday, September 27, 2011



In a distinct change of pace from the large scale bombast of the previous year's choice of BEN HUR, the Academy's pick for best picture of 1960 is a charming, low key, romantic comedy drama. It was the second best picture winner for writer-director Billy Wilder (the first was 1948's THE LOST WEEKEND), and while its subject matter is far less shocking today then it was back then, it still holds up as a bittersweet movie with wonderful performances from its entire cast.
Wilder first came up with the movie's idea while watching David Lean's 1944 film, BRIEF ENCOUNTER. At one point in that movie an unseen character allows two people to have an adulterous affair in his apartment, and Wilder was struck with the notion of telling a story from that character's point of view, "the guy who climbs into the warm bed left by two lovers."  (The theme of infidelity ran through many of Wilder's films, like THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH and AVANTI!).
After filing away that idea because the production code of the time would never allow it, Wilder pulled it out of mothballs in 1959, correctly believing that the code had finally eased enough for him to make it. Buoyed by the enormous success of SOME LIKE IT HOT, Wilder spent $400,000 on building modern, realistic office sets for the film, and eventually spent $3,000,000 on the film's budget; it would go on to make almost 15.
It tells the story of C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a young bachelor who works at an insurance company in New York City.  To advance his career, he allows his superiors use of his apartment to engage in extra marital affairs.  Meanwhile, he pines for Fran (Shirley Maclaine), one of the elevator operators in his building.  When the company's main boss, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), tells Bud that he knows about the apartment, Bud is worried, until Jeff himself asks to borrow the key! Eventually, Bud discovers that the woman Jeff is meeting with is Fran. Even worse, when a depressed Fran, sick of Jeff's lies about leaving his wife, tries to overdose on sleeping pills, Bud has to be the one to nurse her back to health.
Jack Lemmon first worked with Wilder in SOME LIKE IT HOT, and he gave a great comedic performance there; he would go on to work with the director seven times in all. Wilder says that he and co writer IAL Diamond wrote this film with Lemmon in mind for the lead, and it's easy to see why: this is a perfect role for Lemmon's put upon everyman persona, and he deftly juggles the comedy and the drama of the story.  His performance is full of charming physical touches, like the way he strains spaghetti with a tennis racket, dons a ridiculous "junior executive" hat, or gently tucks Fran into bed after stopping her suicide attempt. His character is always likable, and, even if what he is doing is aiding infidelity, his desire to move up the corporate ladder is understandable.  And he becomes truly heroic at the film's end, when he finally gives up his lucrative job because he is so sickened by the thought of helping Jeff lead Fran on again.

Jack Lemmon in his Junior Executive Hat

Maclaine is just as good as Lemmon; her Fran is such a sweet, sad person that we can see why Bud is so taken with her, and her chemistry with both Lemmon and MacMurray is excellent and believable.  She has many moving moments; I particularly like her wonderful speech about the pain of loving a married man.  She really shows us how much she wants to believe Jeff's lies, and how much it hurts her to discover the truth (the expression on her face when he hands her money in lieu of an actual Christmas present is heart breaking).
And as for MacMurray, he coolly and effectively plays one of the great movie scumbags!  Here is a powerful and wealthy man who sees his womanizing almost as a right of his privilege.  He can plead to Fran that he really cares for her one moment, and then dismiss her to Bud in the next ("you see a girl a couple of times a week, just for laughs, and right away they think you're gonna divorce your wife."). It's to MacMurray's credit that he does seem to find some humanity in this skunk of a man, (he does seem to have some feelings for Fran)but not enough humanity that we can't cheer at the end when Fran finally walks out on him for good.

Fred MacMurray and Jack Lemmon

According to Maclaine, the script for the film was not finished until well into the film's shooting, but what could have been a recipe for disaster worked wonderfully as it allowed Wilder and Diamond to build on the characters based on the performances of the actors, and the result is that Mclaine and Lemmon are one of the best romantic couples ever: always  good natured and kind to each other, even as they both feel taken advantage of (the moment where Lemmon admits that he too tried to commit suicide over a woman is crucial to their connection).  They are so right for each other that the film's conventional happy ending does not feel false or contrived in any way, with Maclaine's run across town becoming one of Hollywood's great romantic moments.
Wilder also put that expensive office set to good use, especially in the film's opening when Bud appears to be working in a sea of identical desks, illustrating his desire for a promotion more than words ever could.  Really, there really aren't any major flaws in this film(even the score by Charles Williams is perfect for the story); it is an expert blend of humor, sadness and romance without a bad performance or slow moment.
Overall, this is a classic, one of the best romances ever filmed, and it had an influence both direct (it was turned into a Broadway musical, PROMISES PROMISES, in 1968) and indirect (TV's terrific MAD MEN borrows a page or two). 


 This is a tough call, because while I obviously love this movie, another very different film was released that year that probably has had even more of an influence: Alfred Hitchcock's PYSCHO.  The difficulty of comparing these two films has me tied up in knots!  So I won't argue with the Academy's choice.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

BEN HUR (1959)

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With his victory for BEN HUR in 1959, director William Wyler had his third and final win for best picture (MRS. MINIVER in 1942 and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES  in 1946 were the first two), and it was unlikely one for him: although he had a directoral career that stretched back to the 1920's, he had never before directed an epic.  And in terms of sheer scale, BEN HUR was certainly an epic; it was also an enormous gamble for the MGM studio, which, in the 1950's, had come upon hard times.  After seeing what success Cecil B Demille had had in 1956 with the TEN COMMANDMENTS, they decided to remake BEN HUR, which had been a big hit for them as a silent film back in 1925.  Sam Zimbalist, who had produced Quo Vadis, another epic, for the studio in 1951, was called in to produce.  It was he who chose Wyler (who had to be convinced) as director.   Charlton Heston, who of course played Moses in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, was picked to play the lead title character.  As the film went into production, the budget for the film ballooned as some of the largest sets ever built were made in Italy and thousands of extras were hired.  But the gamble would pay off as the film would return  over seventy million dollars in domestic box office on an investment of around sixteen million.  But bigger is not always better; while the film does have some great visuals and exciting action scenes, at three and half hours it goes on far too long, and it is often heavy handed and indifferently acted.  All things considered, I prefer the original, which also has great action scenes, and which manages to tell the same story with a running time over an hour shorter than the remake.

BEN HUR, began its life as a novel (full name: BEN HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST) published by Lew Wallace, a Union general, in 1880; it was an enormous hit.  Wyler's film, which follows the book closely, opens in 26 AD in Jerusalem, and sees wealthy prince and merchant Judah Ben Hur (Heston) meeting with childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), who is now a major Roman military leader.  The two find that they have different feelings about the Roman occupation, which eventually leads to Ben Hur being sent to a slave galley on trumped up charges while his mother, Miriam(Martha Scott) and sister Tirza (Cathy O'Donnell) are sent to prison.  Inevitably, after years of hardship, Ben Hur escapes to make his revenge against Messala.  Meanwhile, the presence of Jesus causes a stir in both the Roman and Jewish communities.
Wyler may have worried about directing his first epic, but he certainly handled the movies spectacle scenes with skill; the sets and costumes look great,  the action scenes are exciting, and the camera sweeps across the seas of extras beautifully.  Ironically,  the kind of scenes that he was normally renowned for were the ones that caused him to falter, that is, the serious, quiet dramatic moments between a few characters.  Heston, who's  tall, manly physique made him a credible action hero, seems a bit lost when he isn't engaged in physical activity, and his constant stentorian line readings quickly grow tiresome. Furthermore, the chemistry between him and his inevitable love interest, Esther (Hya Harareet), is practically non existent.  (To be fair, Harareet's downright soporific performance does him no favors).  I find it surprising that Heston won a best actor Oscar for the role, but then BEN HUR won a record 11 Oscars (a feat only equaled by TITANIC and THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING), so he may have just been lucky enough to be carried along by the film's sweeping victory.  Sadly, the poor performances don't end with Heston and Harareet; Wyler seems so determined to copy the success of Demille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS that he makes the same mistake that Demille did of often having his actors proclaim their dialogue instead of merely speaking it.  Really, the only memorable performance in the film is given by Hugh Griffith(who also won an award for best supporting actor) as the gambling, horse loving Shiek Ilderim; Griffith plays the only character in the film who ever appears to be having any fun, and he brings some much needed wit and energy to the story, even if his Arabic makeup is far from convincing.

Hugh Griffith (note that his makeup ends at the top of his forehead!)

To be fair, talk of performances and story are almost pointless when discussing BEN HUR because there is really only one thing that people think of when they remember the film: the chariot race.  And with good reason, it is a truly exciting sequence, one that took five weeks to shoot and that runs for around twenty minutes in the film without ever boring the audience,  playing like a mini movie within the movie, one without dialogue but plenty of action and drama.  The thunder of the horses, the crashing of the chariots, and the way that Massala whips Ben Hur the same way he beats his horses all come together wonderfully. (Heston did much of his own riding for the scene, and here his larger than life persona for once really fits with the action onscreen). Amazingly, Wyler left most of the direction of the race to his second unit director, Andrew Marton, who, working closely with veteran stunt man Yakima Canutt, created a thrilling chase that still excites decades later. The action is this scene is so good that it lead to rumors that stuntmen were actually killed during its making, which proved to be untrue.  The only problem with the race is that after it's over there's still a good forty minutes of movie to go!  And, since the end of the race also ends with the death of Massala, the most dramatic part of the story has been resolved, leaving a far less compelling story (Ben Hur discovers that his mother and sister have leprosy) in its wake.

Charleton Heston in the famous chariot race

I have always been a bit puzzled over the presence of Jesus in the film; since he never talks, often only is shown from behind, and almost never appears until the film's end, he comes across more as a deus ex machina (he saves Ben Hur's life at one point, and then cures his mother and sister's leprosy to give the film a happy ending) than an actual character.  And, quite frankly, I think Ben Hur's belief that Jesus was the messiah would have been more dramatic if he actually heard Jesus speak.  Clearly, the movie is just following Wallace's book, which also avoided Jesus for long portions, but I still feel that a pro Christian movie with Jesus in it could have used him as more than a silent character in the background.

Finally, there is one thing that should be mentioned about BEN HUR: although Karl Tunberg gets sole credit for the film's script, it was widely known that it was rewritten by Gore Vidal and Christopher Fry.  In the 1995 documentary about coded gay characters in old Hollywood movies, THE CELLULOID CLOSET, Vidal recalls that to make the first meeting of Ben Hur and Massala early in the film more dramatic, he wrote it as if the two men had been lovers as teenagers.  He also claims that he told Wyler this, who told Stephen Boyd, but not Heston, about this idea.  The conservative Heston later denied this account, but is undeniable that Wyler shoots the two men's first meeting much like the reunion of two lovers (they rush to each other excitedly down a long hall). I like to believe Vidal and think that this subtext was intentional, simply because it makes the film more interesting, and Massala's betrayal of Ben Hur more dramatic, but your opinion may vary.


My mixed feelings about this film are clear, so it should come as no surprise that I prefer Billy Wilder's SOME LIKE IT HOT and Alfred Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST over this uneven film.  But, judging by the chariot scene and it's overall excellent visuals, I can't say that BEN HUR was a poor choice.