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Posts Tagged ‘Frank Sinatra’

For someone who is overwhelmingly best-remembered as a singer, Frank Sinatra had a pretty good career in non-musical films: he won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity, directed None But the Brave (the first American-Japanese co-production), and at one point was in the frame to play the lead in both Dirty Harry and Die Hard (admittedly, the latter offer was a contractual obligation on the part of the producers). On the other hand, he did reject the idea of making a movie of A Clockwork Orange, thinking the idea had no potential, but nobody’s perfect.

Sinatra himself felt the zenith of his acting career came in 1962 with his role in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, one of those films which regularly shows up on lists of classics. (There was a fun pub quiz question a few years back – who is the only actor to appear in three of the movies on the AFI’s 100 Best of All Time list? I’ll give you a clue: they were also in Night of the Lepus, which is probably something they’re less proud of.) Certainly this is a formidably accomplished and intelligent film – it would be wrong to say that it hasn’t dated at all, but this hasn’t affected its ability to engage and entertain.

Sinatra plays Ben Marco, who at the start of the film is serving in the Korean War (that least romanticised of the USA’s 20th century conflicts). He is the leader of a patrol, assisted by his sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) – but things do not as planned when their native guide betrays them and they are captured by communist forces.

Three days later the patrol makes it back to their own lines, having lost only a couple of its members – Shaw’s incredible bravery has ensured their survival, and all the other survivors agree on his decency and general wonderfulness, even if they’re not convinced they actually like him all that much. Needless to say, Shaw gets the Medal of Honour for his deeds, which is eagerly seized upon by his calculating mother (Angela Lansbury), who sees it as a great publicity tool for Shaw’s stepfather, a senator of somewhat extreme views.

But Marco is troubled by nightmares, remembering the patrol being held prisoner by the Red Chinese and subjected to intensive conditioning and psychological programming: Shaw in particular being transformed into a mindless, remorseless killer. It is just a nightmare, though, isn’t it? But then he learns of other survivors of the patrol who are having the same dreams…

Yes, the whole story about Shaw’s stupendous bravery is just a cover-up for the abduction and processing of the patrol, as well as providing a convenient method of establishing Shaw as an unimpeachably heroic figure. Someone with knowledge of the right triggers – certain phrases and objects – can direct Shaw against any target they choose…

Stephen King has suggested that the political assassin – the proverbial lone gunman – was, for a while at least, one of the great bogeymen of American culture, and The Manchurian Candidate can’t have done anything to dispel this. Perhaps it’s fitting that this most famous of paranoid thrillers is surrounded by real-world conspiracy theories, but it’s certainly a striking coincidence that this is the second Sinatra-starring movie to revolve around a plan to effect change at the top of American society via a political assassination, the first being 1954’s Suddenly. Sinatra allegedly wanted both films withdrawn from circulation when it was suggested they had played a role in inspiring Lee Harvey Oswald’s successful assassination of John F Kennedy – rumour had it for a while that Sinatra bought the negatives to Suddenly and had the film destroyed. The assassin of Robert Kennedy, meanwhile, made various allegations concerning amnesia, brainwashing, and clandestine government activity, all of which are themes this movie touches upon.

Nevertheless, for a political thriller, this is a film which is notably difficult to read in terms of its own politics: one can perhaps detect a note of sympathy towards liberalism, but in general it is fiercely cynical when it comes to ideology of all flavours: quite which party the climactic convention is being held by is left open, while the particular agenda of the villains of the film is also quite obscure – they aspire to a level of social control which will ‘make martial law seem like anarchy’, but this feels more like a kind of authoritarian megalomania than a particular political position. They certainly don’t feel like committed communists – Lansbury vows to topple the communist powers which have assisted her. Then again, even the ideological commitment of the communists seems to be somewhat lacking: one Soviet agent is pleased to report that one of their front operations actually turns a modest profit, while another looks forward to spending an afternoon visiting a high-class department store. In all cases, it seems to be about the exercise of control in pursuit of enlightened (or not so enlightened) self-interest.

The film is quite open about this, opting not to present the story as a mystery – the explanation as to what has happened to Shaw and the rest of the patrol is presented very early in the film, before Marco or anyone has really figured it out. The real driver of the plot is what Shaw’s controllers have in mind for him to do, which is indeed held back until the final act of the movie. In the meantime the movie is powered by the intricacies of the plot and the strength of the performances.

The acting is uniformly good, although Harvey’s tendency to declaim his dialogue in a rather sub-Olivier manner is an unusual choice. Sinatra gives a fine, subtle performance – although the scene where he engages hand-to-hand combat with a Korean communist agent inevitably brings to mind Peter Sellers fighting Burt Kwouk – and he has some engaging scenes with Janet Leigh (who is our pub quiz answer: her other two films from the top 100 are Psycho and Touch of Evil). The film’s star turn, however, is Angela Lansbury, who creates a quite extraordinary monster in Shaw’s mother, Mrs Iselin – it’s been suggested that Richard Condon’s original novel was partly plagiarised from I, Claudius, in which case it makes perfect sense that Mrs Iselin should be a modern-day equivalent of Livia Drusilla. (Seeing as we were recently talking about unlikely parent-child age-gaps in cinema, it’s worth mentioning that Harvey and Lansbury are completely convincing despite there being only three years between them.)

As I’ve said, some stylistic elements of The Manchurian Candidate have dated a little, but the film’s cynicism and intelligence are as engaging as ever. Perhaps in its own way it also acknowledges the fragility of human beings, and the invisible damage that soldiers can carry home with them, a notion which perhaps feels much more modern than one might expect. It’s the mixture of intelligence, cynicism and humanity which makes the film such an impressive and successful piece of entertainment.

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Retentive masochists who’ve been hanging around this blog for a number of years may recall that a while back I looked at a number of famous musicals, mainly ones that I really liked: Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver!, and so on. I have to say that I did tend to find myself in a sixties and early seventies sweet spot, mostly containing films which used the soothing and appealing nature of the non-diegetic musical as a way of addressing challenging real-world issues such as racism and political extremism. On the other hand, I didn’t really care much for Guys and Dolls, which is really just a whimsical romantic comedy.

Perhaps there is a place for the musical purely as a piece of escapist entertainment, though. On a whim I sat down and watched On the Town the other night – I’d sort-of watched it before (this is code for ‘had it on TV in the background while I did something else’) and clearly it made some sort of impression on me. This is a film that was originally released at the back end of 1949, based on a stage show from a few years earlier (with many of composer Leonard Bernstein’s songs cut and replaced by new ones, which caused a few ructions). The film is directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly (his first time in this particular role).

This is one of those films which is really a love letter to New York City: it’s not just that practically the whole thing is set there, some of it is even filmed there, which I would suggest is a lot less common. It opens at 6am at the docks, with excited sailors on leave spilling off their ship, much to the amusement of the passing workers. Amongst their number are the trio we will follow: Gabe (Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra), and Ozzie (Jules Munshin). The three of them have never been to the Big Apple before, and have only twenty-four hours to avail themselves of its various distractions.

A somewhat improbable whistle-stop tour of various sites ensue, as the trio belt out ‘New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town’ – a sentiment I would certainly agree with myself, although my Significant Other might be a bit less generous in her praise. However, the three guys just rattling around tourist sites wouldn’t be much of a movie, and so we get to an inciting incident: while travelling on the metro, Gabe spies the poster of ‘Miss Turnstiles’ (Vera-Ellen), a promotion which he assumes is a big deal but means nothing to most Manhattanites. Needless to say he is instantly smitten and resolves to find her so he can take her out dancing that night. This being a musical, however, he and the others actually bump into her having her photo taken, but she gets away before he can ask her out (her real name is Ivy Green).

With the help of a passing lady cab driver, Hildy (Betty Garrett), the sailors set off in pursuit of Ivy, based on the personal bio on her poster. Hildy seems rather taken with Chip, hence her willingness to help out. They end up visiting a museum, where Ozzie is bagged by a passing anthropologist (Ann Miller) allured by his resemblance to a prehistoric man and a dinosaur skeleton falls down, before they decide to split up and help Gabe find Ivy again (some of them take rather idiosyncratic approaches to this task). Is Gabe going to be stuck without a date on his one and only night in New York?

As I say, there’s a time and a place for dealing with serious themes in a musical entertainment, but New York City in 1949 is clearly not it: the Second World War is not long over, America is bursting with confidence and energy, and anything is possible if you put your mind to it. This is one of those quite rare movies without a single really unsympathetic character in it: certainly people have their problems, but these are just issues of circumstance and misunderstanding – when it really comes down to it, everyone turns out to be decent and sympathetic. Films like this have the knack of completely bypassing the shell of cynicism I habitually operate within: I find it very hard to be genuinely critical of them.

Not that there is much here to be critical of, anyway. Perhaps the least positive thing I can say is that it comes close to breaching my usual guideline that a great musical should have (mostly) great songs. You can perhaps detect the difference between the small number of original Bernstein songs that have survived and the new ones added from other composers (Bernstein’s seem to be more ambitious musically); most of them are certainly agreeable to listen to, but I don’t think you really go home whistling selections from the film. Instead, I would suggest this is an example of a musical where the dancing is probably more distinguished than the vocal work – Ann Miller’s performance of ‘Prehistoric Man’ gets better and better as it goes on, mainly because it turns into a dance number: she’s a good singer, but a sensational mover. The same is also true of Gene Kelly, of course, and you remember the footwork from a number like ‘Main Street’ more than the vocal.

Just as charming as the musical numbers is the general tenor of the piece, which I suspect may have been slightly daring back in the 1940s. You might expect a story about three sailors looking for fun in New York City to get fairly raucous and suggestive (cue jokes about the fleet being in, and so on), but the film very sweetly flips this on its head: the three guys are all basically hicks, and very innocently so. Gabe is the only one who actually chases a girl, but does so entirely honourably (this being Gene Kelly, you completely buy into it) – the other two sailors are basically picked up by women who are, to put it mildly, romantically pro-active (Garrett and Sinatra perform ‘Come Up to My Place’, which she sings to him, and she’s not looking to show him her stamp collection).

Despite the fact the film is basically about young (or fairly young: Kelly was 37, Sinatra 35, and so on) people looking to hook up on a night out, On the Town retains that sweetness, innocence and optimism I was talking about earlier. It’s not about anything more serious than being excited and hopeful in one of the world’s great cities. You can possibly dig deeper for a more substantial subtext, but I doubt you’ll get anywhere with it. A great piece of escapist entertainment.

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Well, following a vague and unexpected stab at reviewing West Side Story last month, we may as well continue our meander through classic Hollywood musicals, in a new irregular feature entitled… you know, I really can’t think of a name for this strand. Gimme Some Jazz Hands? Once More With Feeling? Don’t Call Brosnan? Ladies and gentlemen of the NCJG readership, I throw it open to you.

Anyway, on this occasion the all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza in question is Joseph L Mankiewicz’s Guys and Dolls from 1955. Like West Side Story, this is a New York tale of lives of sometimes questionable virtue and the redemptive power of love, but while only a handful of years separate the two films, they seem to come from totally different worlds.

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A jolly opening sequence reveals we are in a world of gamblers and petty crooks, but not one which feels remotely threatening or grounded. Our attention is first drawn to Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra), whose living is the organisation of illegal gambling. Nathan is a man with problems – his long-term (and, one suspects, long-suffering) girlfriend Adelaide (Vivian Blaine) is growing increasingly insistent that he marry her, but more importantly, he doesn’t have a venue for the peripatetic dice game he has been running for several decades: the only option available requires a $1000 payment he simply doesn’t possess. To get the cash, he has the bright idea of making a bet with high-rolling gambler Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) that he will be unable to take strait-laced mission worker Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) out to dinner. Will Sky win the bet? If so, will Nathan be able to hold his game? And will the guys end up happily ever after with their girls?

No prizes for guessing the answers to any of the above. In the past I have praised the unique ability of the non-diegetic musical to combine the examination of serious social issues with the most uplifting, pure entertainment – but this is, of course, a best-case scenario, and Guys and Dolls is, I would suggest, not really a musical of the first rank. What does it speak of human nature? What is it fundamentally about? Well, er – sometimes you fall in love with someone you probably shouldn’t (rather more frequently than that, in my experience). Many men have commitment issues. And, er, that’s about it.

Guys and Dolls doesn’t attempt to be remotely serious or realistic in any way. Everyone talks in the most bizarrely mannered way, with byzantinely convoluted sentence construction and no contractions, as if to hammer home the unreality of the film’s milieu. Perhaps this is because a realistic film about New York low-lives would be tonally inappropriate for the fluffiness of the plot, but it does result in the film feeling even more detached from reality. Based on a couple of Damon Runyon stories, its status as a New York movie is compromised by the fact the whole thing has obviously been shot on soundstages. This is a musical with all potential rough edges filed down: not just a soft centre, but a soft exterior as well.

Even so, a musical setting out just to provide entertainment value isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the real problem with Guys and Dolls is that this is a two-and-a-half-hour musical, at the end of which you will probably only be able to whistle the tunes of two or three of the songs. Not that most of the rest are actually bad in their music or lyrics (the composer is Frank Loesser, by the way), it’s just they will most likely have slipped quietly from your memory by the film’s conclusion, leaving you with only the title song (sung by Sinatra, Stubby Kaye and Johnny Silver), ‘Luck be a Lady’ (by Brando), and ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat’ (Kaye again). This is a notably low hit rate for a major musical, and I found my heart starting to sink whenever Vivian Blaine launched into another of her solo numbers: again, these aren’t actively bad songs, but they’re mostly just plot-stopping filler.

There are lots of other things, both good and bad, one could say about Guys and Dolls, concerning both the acting and the plot. You might expect Marlon Brando, the great exponent of the realistic performance, to be well outside his comfort zone in a musical as arch as this one, and it’s true that you get no sense that you’re watching One of the Greatest Actors of All Time from his performance. But he’s not bad; he passes the Brosnan Test comfortably, and even dances a bit without embarrassing himself. Jean Simmons is actually very good indeed as Sarah Brown, and their romance is genuinely touching in places, if a bit suspect in others (How to Handle a Woman the Sky Masterson Way consists of equal parts of moral blackmail and getting her smashed on Bacardi, apparently). On the other hand, the presentation of the Cuban characters in the movie borders on the racist (50s New York seems to be a whites-only city, too), and the climax seems to me to be badly mishandled: we don’t actually see the reconciliation of the two lovers, and the final double wedding is surely taking cheesiness too far.

Like I say, you could say all these things: but it’s really just refrigerator noise, given that this is a musical where most of the songs are not really that great. Perhaps I’ve just been spoilt, having seen West Side Story so recently, but I do think that a genuinely first-rate musical should have a killer-to-filler song ratio of at least 70%-30%. In Guys and Dolls that ratio is backwards, and this may be why it’s not better remembered. As it is, this is good-natured, mildly-involving, gently amusing entertainment, but nothing much more substantial than that.

 

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