The Morning After: Sep. 16, 2013

Welcome to The Morning After, where I share with you what I’ve seen over the past week either in film or television. On the film side, if I have written a full length review already, I will post a link to that review. Otherwise, I’ll give a brief snippet of my thoughts on the film with a full review to follow at some point later. For television shows, seasons and what not, I’ll post individual comments here about each of them as I see fit.

So, here is what I watched this past week:

A Letter to Three Wives


Before All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz made A Letter to Three Wives, a brilliant twist on the romantic drama, exploring the lives of three couples whose relationships are put on display for the audience, warts and all.

As Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) and Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern) are preparing to leave on a short field trip with a pack of boistrous youths, they receive a letter from a friend, Addie Ross (voiced by Celeste Holm) who informs them that she has run away with one of their husbands. She doesn’t say whose and by way of the opening narrative, we understand she mostly dislikes these women who speak about her behind her back and would like nothing better than to make them sweat the result.

The three wives find themselves contemplating the nature of their relationships with their husbands, each believing their interactions may have caused the rift that sent them into another woman’s arms. Deborah and Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) have an unusual relationship. Both have left the military and are making a go at life. Deborah thinks her inexperience in social affairs has embarrassed her husband enough to make him want to leave her. Lora Mae and Porter (Paul Douglas) have an antagonistic relationship. He’s a successful refrigerator manufacturer and she’s a lower class secretary who realizes he’s looking for a little fling and uses that information to twist him around her finger until they are married. Rita and George (Kirk Douglas) have a terrific relationship, but as they’ve grown older together, Rita has allowed her career as a radio program writer to change her fiercly independent attitude and push George away.

Which husband leaves is a shock left for the end and Mankiewicz handles it masterfully, tweaking audience expectations and revealing the answer on his own terms, providing ample surprise for an enraptured audience. Mankiewicz was one of Hollywood’s finest writer/directors. Apart from crafting a fantastic film, he elicits strong performances from his cast, a sextet of names that, with the exception of Kirk Douglas, aren’t very well remembered today in spite of their popularity at the time. Even the acerbic wit of Thelma Ritter makes an appearance as Rita and George’s maid, proving she was the best at that type of role.

The Asphalt Jungle


It’s a slow-build kind of film, but John Huston’s film noir The Asphalt Jungle gets more interesting as it plays out. By the time the film gets to the end, you only wish that it weren’t the Code Era and the conclusion weren’t predetermined.

The story surrounds an ex-convict (Sam Jaffe) who hatched a plan before going into the joint to heist a large sum of jewels from a local bank. As he collects his crew, one man stands out among them. Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), an honorable thug who pays his debts, but does so by knocking over liquor stores and conducting other petty crimes. Dix has all the qualities Jaffe’s Doc Riedenschneider desires in a cohort. When he’s double-crossed by his fence (Louis Calhern), a prominent businessman who doesn’t have the funds to pay him, the carefully woven tapestry of his plan unravels and the crew is on the run.

Hayden was born to play hard-boiled noir leads, his chiseled jaw and stern carriage making him the perfect central figure. Jaffe is fine as the calm, collected mastermind while Calhern and James Whitman (the team’s driver) are each on-par. Jean Hagen and Marilyn Monroe are a bit overbearing, the former more so. Hagen plays Dix’s sometimes-lover while Monroe plays Calhern’s mistress.

The film’s opening scenes drag a bit, making it difficult to get immediately involved in the events. Dix isn’t a particularly likable character from the start, but he grows on the audience as the film progresses. The plotting is impeccable, but a bit more character development could have been and the entire film needed more of a push in the early scene. However, by the time we get to the heist itself, tension is built superbly and you’re waiting with bated breath for the team to get in and get out without too many issues.

HellBent


One of the elements of horror in the 1980’s that was so appealing was the simple, dramatic effects employed to convey the utmost terror without having to resort to visual effects technology. HellBent takes many of the best elements of that period’s horror milestones and weaves them into the first horror feature with gay protagonists.

It’s a bit surprising that it took until the mid-2000’s for the first such feature to be produced, but Paul Etheredge-Ouzts’ feature debut was filled with promise and proves that you don’t have to resort to lame acting, weak setups and haphazard construction to make an effective horror. The gay sub-genre of film, in general, tends to feature gay actors who aren’t particularly skilled in the craft and result in films that feel cheap and dated before they are released. HellBent may suffer from weak production values due to its minuscule budget, but the actors bring the same level of craft to this work as they would to any above-average horror film.

The film is set in West Hollywood on Halloween. A demon-masked psycho has selected four friends and flat-mates to kill, cleanly severing their heads with a sickle before carting them off to put on display for reasons that aren’t readily evidence. Apart from the screenplay’s lack of exposition with regard to the killer, they’ve spared plenty of time to flesh out the four young men at the center of the story. Each gay, there’s nothing unusual, excessive or outrageous about these characters compared to similar characters in other genre pics.

That few similar films have been made since then suggests that the sub-genre isn’t particularly teeming with interest. However, producers should recognize this film as a significant achievement even in terms of gay-centric filmmaking. Don’t overindulge in things that presumably sexually excite gay men and focus on sticking to the tropes of the genre and you’ll find success. I tried to get into one other gay horror film this weekend, a series of films in the 1313 series and couldn’t make it through 15 minutes without being bored out of my gourd. The film had no tension, no pacing, poor acting and a premise that screamed bad porn. Yet, that franchise got sequels and this one didn’t. A shame indeed.

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