February 14-20, 2007

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This Week's Revivals

By Richard von Busack

Movie Times Act of Violence/The Leopard Man
(1949/1943) A stunner. While World War II vet Van Heflin is being lionized by his perfect small town, a maimed and furious fellow soldier (Robert Ryan, avatar of film noir) is on his way for an unscheduled visit. A tough and morally complex vengeance film, loaded with implications about the way even the Good War left behind bad consciences. It's highlit with one of the best cinematic trips ever to Bunker Hill, L.A.'s long-bulldozed skid row; that's Mary Astor as the oddly familiar prostitute who has set up shop in this nighttown. BILLED WITH The Leopard Man. Panther on the loose in a small New Mexican village, and a pair of glib vaudevillians (who owned the big cat) come to terms with their own heartlessness as the body count rises. An elegant work of suggested horror by Val Lewton; one killing (symbolized by the oozing of blood under a door) is a motif so famous it was on The Simpsons. (Plays Feb 14-16 in Palo Alto at the Stanford Theatre.)

Movie Times Becket
(1964) The showdown between two men, dear friends and perhaps lovers: one is a childish king of England, Henry II (Peter O'Toole); the other is his far wiser friend Thomas a Becket (Richard Burton), later Archbishop of Canterbury and saint. The attachment between the two men is neither gilded with pity nor given the aura of a sickness; they're the only two men in the world for each other. And the script, derived from Jean Anouihl's hit play, gives weight to both sides in the war between the honor of God and the love of this world. It's a brainy approach to depicting a crime of such outlandish medieval arrogance that it would not be repeated until El Salvador in the 1980s. (Too bad the biopic of Romero wasn't in Becket's league.) Here are two grand, ringing theatrical voices, given enough room in widescreen to echo, and the fine cathedral and palace sets give you a little room to back off and appreciate the resonance. Burton may never have been better than playing this man surprised by awe (possibly this awe is due to the fact that Burton was taking over a role originated by Olivier on Broadway). As the self-described boor, O'Toole gets to be both raging king and happy thug (appropriating a wench from a peasant he crows: "Wash your daughter, dog, and kill her fleas. She's coming to the palace.") Satin clad, and satiny of tongue, John Gielgud plays the king of France, dawdling over his chessboard. While this revival seems to be coming in on the train of O'Toole's splendid late period performance in Venus, it's also significantly like The Last King of Scotland, reminding us that the worst tyrant is the gregarious, capricious kind. For that matter it also anticipates The Queen in a story of the remoteness of a ruler's life. The effort to repeat this film's themes in A Man For All Seasons was stodgy and self-satisfied. O'Toole later reprised the role of the Plantagenet king in The Lion in Winter to less effect, but he roared so loud it did everyone's heart good to hear him. (Plays in San Jose at Camera 12).

Movie Times Camille/Maytime
(Both 1937) With her bouquet of camellias concealing a bloody handkerchief, Greta Garbo has been the definitive Camille for decades. She plays Marguerite, the very highest-priced sort of concubine in 1840s France, an ex-milkmaid who has only learned how to read in the last few years. She is occasionally ruthless, but when the mask drops, you see a woman wearied by illness and harlotry: "a figure with the late sun behind it," as critic Otis Ferguson described Garbo. Somehow her training as a courtesan has been flawed, and her heart is uncontrolled. The role of the consumptive, noble Marguerite is absolutely right for Garbo, who never was the most polished actress of the classic period in movies. She doesn't have the Comédie Française-style perfection of Carole Lombard or Claudette Colbert, the other great cinematic beauties of the time. And Garbo's reluctance, refusal or inability to "nail down" the part is what makes this possibly creaky story live. What is it about her? The freshness, the mixture of frailties and dignities, the low, murmuring voice (one scene here is practically played in whispers), the remarkably expressive mouth. Also stars Laura Hope Crews, very droll as the wheezing procuress who trained Marguerite, and Henry Daniell, touching as the proud, hurt baron who tries to buy Marguerite. As his unfortunate rival, Armand, Robert Taylor has just the right combo of handsomeness and weakness. He's as callow as the women usually are in a man's picture, and Marguerite's reluctance to succumb to him often looks like harsh common sense. BILLED WITH Maytime. Quick, name the No. 1 box-office hit of 1937. It's this triangle between a pair of warblers, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy ("The Iron Butterfly and the Singing Capon," S. J. Perelman sneered), with the decrepit but still sarcastic John Barrymore holding down the third side. Sigmund Romberg provided the songs, including a version of Beethoven's Fifth provided with lyrics. (Plays Feb 17-18 in Palo Alto at the Stanford Theatre.)

Movie Times The Spiral Staircase/I Walked With a Zombie
(1943/1946) Dorothy McGuire plays the mute caretaker of a bed-ridden old lady (Ethel Barrymore) in a dark Gothic mansion. There's a killer on the loose, and his victims are women with physical imperfections. Highly recommended. BILLED WITH I Walked With a Zombie. A Canadian nurse (Frances Dee) comes to the Caribbean island of San Sebastian as the caretaker for a woman rendered mindless—likely by a zombie curse. Director Jacques Tourneur establishes a mood of retribution, colonialism poisoning the colonizers rather than "the natives" infecting the whites. Here are chickens come home to roost, as we see in the repeated shots of the Europeans' totem: the figurehead of the first slave ship that they brought to the island (an arrow-riddled San Sebastian), now used as a garden fountain and referred to by the islanders as "Ti [uncle] Misery." Stars Tom Conway, George Sanders' look-alike and act-alike brother, in the Rochester role; a small part by the calypso singer Sir Lancelot, and the imposing Darby Jones as the mute Carrefour. Often the dance sequences—with worshippers calling out the name of the actual voodoo lord Papa Legba—seem like photographs for Zora Neale Hurston's study Tell My Horse. Here's more evidence of the intelligence producer Val Lewton brought to what could have been grade-B horror. (Plays Feb 21-23 in Palo Alto at the Stanford Theatre.)

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