Conway, Garbus, von Sternberg, Weir, Yates

The Hucksters (Jack Conway, 1947). Based on Frederic Wakeman’s novel from the previous year, The Hucksters burrows into the intersection between advertising and media as a sharp-witted, upstanding man returns to the former field after years away. Clark Gable plays Victor Norman, a crafty operator who views his soap company overlord largely with sardonic superiority. The portions of the film that survey the ever-shifting terrain of the radio environment are uniformly strong, thanks in no small part to the boisterously effective performance of Sydney Greenstreet as the corporate bigwig who sets everyone but Gable’s Norman aquiver. The stretches that deal with Norman’s romantic entanglements, though demonstrating a level of bawdy insinuation surprising for the era, tend towards the drippy and the dull. Conway directs with a static point-and-shoot approach that only heightens the imbalance between the two major threads of the film.

Bobby Fischer Against the World (Liz Garbus, 2011). By erring towards comprehensiveness, this documentary about Bobby Fischer has an awful lot of ground to cover, from his youthful genius to his place at the forefront during the brief period of time when a chess championship could cause a sensation to his descent into conspiracy-spewing, misanthropic madness. Garbus labors mightily to pack it all in to the modest ninety-minute runtime, but there are passages when she has trouble properly gauging the right rhythm for the storytelling. I had a flash of horror when I briefly believed that Garbus was going to minutely explicate every one of the twenty-one games in Fischer’s legendary championship match against Boris Spassky. Instead, the initial games are treated with a languid reverence usually reserved for Ken Burns’ documentaries while the bulk of the battle, including the decisive games, goes by in the amount of time it takes a carved king to topple. The subject remains compelling, and Garbus does right by her topic most of the time. Still, it’s hard to shake the notion that Steve Zaillian conveyed Fischer’s life with equal effectiveness in the interstitial background sequences of his great Searching for Bobby Fischer.

The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977). A lawyer in Sydney takes on a case involving the death of an Australian Aboriginal, getting drawn uncomfortably into the history and mysticism of the tribe in the process. Weir deftly avoids the sort of well-meaning condescension that often compromises the depiction of Aborigines in film, affording the characters dignity and distinct personality even as the plot is reliant on drummed up spooky magic. For all the trappings of serious drama throughout the film, Weir is basically making a horror film here and the more he gives in to those urges, the better the film gets. It could have potentially reached greatness with a deeper, more accomplished performance from its leading man. As the lawyer who finds his world turned upside down, Richard Chamberlain displays the exact same bland totem pole presence that made him a fixture of pompous TV miniseries.

The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg, 1941). The film is largely set in a Shanghai casino owned and operated by ‘Mother’ Gin Sling, played with a heightened sense of malevolent mystery by Ona Munson. The business has been ordered to shut down by local authorities in order to make way for the development plans of a British entrepreneur, inspiring Gin Sling to mount the sort of psychological revenge that, in deference to the film’s stage origins, is best delivered around a well-appointed banquet table. Von Sternberg directs the film with a brand of moody luridness that heightens the more lunatic elements of the story in a most satisfying way. In particular, its view of elaborate foreign decadence must have held a unique appeal for audiences as global war was tossing pebbles against America’s bedroom window. The film avoids collapsing under its own considerable weight, but it does sag at times. There’s a fun performance by Phyllis Brooks as the film’s obligatory wisecracking dame, and it’s fun to watch Gene Tierney shed layers of class to play a wealthy young heiress who shatters in slow motion. Victor Mature is also on hand, delivering his customary performance as the dullest imgainable version of Dean Martin.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (David Yates, 2010). I really do try to find the magic within the films based on J.K. Rowling’s epic book series, but the adaptations are increasingly mere tracings instead of actual cinematic efforts. I can see how devoted fans of the novel can find reward in having the beloved story rendered with dutiful honor, but the film plainly doesn’t work as its own entity, even as an extension of the hours of celluloid that came before. For a story supposedly filled with grave import, there’s remarkably little tension in the movie. David Yates delivers the magical battles and terrible turning points with all the excitement of someone making his way down a checklist. There’s also a remarkable lack of creativity to the magic itself. The ability to bend time and reshape reality presumably at their fingertips, and all these wizards and witches basically uses their wands in roughly the same way that Han Solo uses a laser blaster?

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