Thursday, August 30, 2012

Pygmalion, Detour, A Hen in the Wind

Pygmalion, by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, 1938

I haven't seen My Fair Lady, and while I probably still should, I instead decided to go straight back to the source. This is a wonderful adaptation of the famous George Bernard Shaw play, largely written by Shaw himself.

For those who might be unfamiliar with it, Pygmalion is a witty and observant takedown of class disparity in England about Henry Higgins, a wealthy dialect specialist who, on a bet, takes in Eliza Doolittle, a girl from the lowest walks of London society, and teaches her to pass herself off as a noblewoman. As his instruction begins to take hold, the two opposites, both equally headstrong, become enmeshed in a stubborn battle of wills.

The dialogue in Pygmalion holds up amazingly well, just as sharp today as it was in 1938 (and presumably in the 1912 play as well). The performances are great too. I loved Henry Higgins' character, played by co-director Leslie Howard, the way he was so sure of his high place in society, oblivious to his own lapses into bad language and slobbish behavior. He's definitely kind of a selfish jerk, but you come to actually like his company in the end, just as he and Eliza grow on each other. Wendy Hiller is also wonderful as Eliza Doolittle, not only playing a thick cockney accent, but convincingly evolving it into a posh English over the course of her training. What's really great about her performance are the subtleties in her pronunciations. Certain Cockneyisms stay with her, and sometimes sneak out, all the way to the end. She always has difficulty with the letter "H" and often puts a noticeable effort into hitting it, which proves Shaw's choosing of the name "Henry Higgins" a brilliant little metaphor for the distance between the two of them.

I'm sure I'll enjoy My Fair Lady too, whenever I see it, but I'm not sure I'll like it as much as I did Pygmalion. It's a true classic, often overshadowed by its flashier counterpart.

Detour, by Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945

It's weird to think that there were a bunch of different tiers in the early days of Hollywood filmmaking. Unlike today, where a movie is either HUGE and Hollywood or tiny and independent, with nothing in between, they used to have movies that ranged from the big Hollywood pictures with all the big stars, all the way down from the movies made on Poverty Row, for dirt cheap and with no-name actors. Not many of those dirt cheap movies are remembered too favorably these days, but Edgar G. Ulmer's film noir Detour is consistently listed as an important American film.

Detour is the story of Al (Tom Neal), a struggling pianist, who sets out on a hitchhiking journey from New York to Los Angeles to reunite with his girlfriend who left him to become an actress. Along the way, he accidentally kills a man and covers it up, and is then blackmailed by a woman who had encountered that man before. There are several interesting twists and turns in the story, especially considering that the movie is only just over an hour long.

The tone of Detour is actually very dark and haunting, even for a film noir. My favorite shot was early in the movie, as we see a close-up of Al's hands playing a jaunty song at the club he's employed at. We then see his face as he's playing the song, and it's just about the most unhappy face you'll ever see. I also like that the scheme that drives the main characters in the second half of the film is just as low-rent and sleazy as the movie itself. There's no Maltese Falcon or other such Hollywood film noir MacGuffin. The characters are doing what they're doing to sell a dead man's car and keep the money. When the opportunity for a bigger piece of the pie comes along, the movie stops short of exploring it.

Detour is definitely worth a watch, and since it's in the public domain, it's very easy to come across. A very cool way to spend a mere hour of your time.

A Hen in the Wind
, by Yasujiro Ozu, 1948

I'm still quite new to the films of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, but so far, I'm pretty well blown away. The only film I had seen of his was Good Morning, his gentle and loving tale of two little boys who refuse to speak until their dad buys them a TV. A Hen in the Wind is a very different film from the rest of his body of work, but no less powerful.

Kinuyo Tanaka plays Tokiko, a housewife left alone with her son while her husband fights in the second World War. Japan's economy is in a deep wartime depression, and Tokiko's resources have dried up. When her son falls ill, she makes a difficult decision to save him: Selling herself as a prostitute in order to pay for his medical costs. Soon, when the war ends and her husband Shuichi (Shuji Sano) returns home, Tokiko confesses to him, unable to lie, which causes a seemingly insurmountable rift in their loving marriage.

Many have criticized A Hen in the Wind for being so much darker than a typical Ozu film. It even has one of, if not the, only act of violence in one of his films. It's not like a guy getting chopped in half or anything, or even someone getting killed. The act is relatively small in terms of movie violence, but it still feels pretty real and brutal in the context of this story. Despite the realness and brutality, I found the film to be very uplifting and beautiful in the end. Ozu doesn't demonize Tokiko for doing what she did. In fact, it seemed like the only decision available to her. Nor does he make Shuichi out to be in the wrong for his inability to process this. In fact, he does his best to try to understand her, and even forgive her, but still is unable to get her transgression out of his mind. Japan was in a dark place after the war, and the film reflects that, but also looks to the future with a message of forgiveness and new beginnings.

A Hen in the Wind is a beautiful film by one of the true masters, which is all the more surprising that this hasn't found its way onto DVD in the states. I think the Criterion Collection owns the rights, and they've released a lot of Ozu's other films, so it's probably only a matter of time. I had the wonderful opportunity to see it projected on film, and I'm glad that I did. It's definitely a film worth seeking out, should the opportunity arise.

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