Sunday, June 04, 2006

Best of The Best

I suppose I could just pick up David Thomson, but my favourite way to get an instantly accessible overview of a director's career tends to be courtesy of all those people — many of them apparently half-mad, but bless — who cast their votes on the Internet Movie Database. Clicking "sort by ratings" — which gives you a ranked list of any director/actor/craftsperson's complete output according to each film's average mark out of ten — is admittedly a fairly tragic activity, but then so is treating the ticking off of movies as a life goal (guilty) and collecting football cards (not guilty) and any number of other male, listy things, so leave me alone.

Anyway, it can yield some surprises. What would be your guess for everyone's favourite Bergman film? The Seventh Seal (1957)? Try Shame (1968). Worst film starring Nicole Kidman? It ain't The Human Stain (an alarmingly high average of 6.29) or Days of Thunder (5.30) or even The Stepford Wives (5.20), but something from 1987 called Watch the Shadows Dance (3.83). (Apparently the 2000 Blockbuster Entertainment Awards, which voters scathingly panned with an average of just 3.03, were even less enjoyable.)

Anyway, a director I've been checking out recently is William Wyler, whose record is quite something: 29 movies, and not a single one that dips below a pretty respectable 6.8 on the "weighted" scale. (Whatever that means.) Bottom is 1935's Edward G Robinson-starrer Barbary Coast, on which Wyler was actually replaced by Howard Hawks. Hawks, Cukor and others would go green looking at Wyler's scorecard, even if his top mark (8.2 for Ben-Hur) isn't particularly stratospheric compared with, say, the upper echelons of Hitchcock or Welles.

Looking at his career this way has confirmed my sense that Wyler was one of the most genuinely reliable directors of Hollywood's golden age, if by reliability we mean a versatile craftsmanship in, out and between genres, a habit of doing intelligent justice to his given material, and a sturdy interest in recurring themes without the instantly recognisable authorial stamp of his more canonised peers. Which is to say, if you were a Cahiers du Cinema critic, you'd probably have to call Wyler a "metteur en scene" rather than a full-blown auteur, but, unless you were a particularly dogmatic one, you'd still have to allow him his own subtle signature — refined and difficult to forge, we might say, unlike the bold, easily pastiched imprimatur of a Hitchcock or a Frank Capra.

I'd differ very slightly with IMDb's rankings of the mere five Wyler films I've seen to date: Funny Girl (1968), which I still quite like, does belong towards the bottom, because though it contains, or rather struggles to contain, an almost frighteningly assured declaration of intent from Streisand (in her debut), it's typical of the stodgy, puddingy quality of late-Sixties musicals in too many other ways. I like The Children's Hour (1961) quite a lot more than Mrs Miniver (1942), basically because of sharper drama and better acting, but both are strong; and The Heiress (1949), the director's stab at Henry James's Washington Square, stands up beautifully give or take a slightly disappointing performance from Olivia de Havilland.

It's not for want of chances, but I've still yet to see Ben-Hur. The Wyler I've just got round to, third down on the IMDb list, is his WWII homecoming drama The Best Years of Our Lives, a big wham-bam Oscar grab bag in 1946, but a marvellous, bitter and plangent movie all the same, enthrallingly small-scale for a film of its epic length, and distinguished by at least two remarkable performances and several pretty good ones. Nick, for one, considers Fredric March's Oscar the most worthy ever given in the Best Actor category, at least among those he's seen; I think I'd give that honour to George C Scott in Patton by a whisker, but it's very close, with Nicolas Cage and F. Murray Abraham (curiously underrated, insofar as an Oscar-winner can be) not far behind.

Still, for all March's contained virtuosity, his caginess, his staunchly untheatrical self-pity, there was another performance which, if not technically its equal perhaps, struck me as in many ways even more impressive in terms of its centrality to the film's impact. I'm talking about Harold Russell, who plays double amputee Homer Parrish. Wyler lavishes his best work on the character right from the beginning, as do cinematographer Gregg Toland and (in one of his finest scores) composer Hugo Friedhofer, all enfolding him in a spellbindingly expressive moment of wordless vulnerability as he wakes up on his flight home and gazes out fearfully and almost beseechingly at the clouds.

I was instantly attached to Homer as a character and Russell as a performer, and so impressed by his acting that I began to doubt whether he was a non-professional war veteran as I'd initially assumed. I must admit that I'd never heard of the man, a real-life amputee who was awarded the kind of Best Supporting Actor Oscar the Academy could, in this of all years, have felt justified handing him for sentimental reasons alone. But they didn't, or at least they needn't have, on that basis. He's a wonderful, genial, touching and sad presence throughout the film and really the whole point of it. The way he modulates his pain in different company — hearty with the guys, stiff and awkward with family, almost unbearably lonely and introspective on his own — tells Wyler's whole story about rehabilitation and tells it magnificently. I found the other plotlines less compelling in various ways — Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright struggle to make their will-they-won't-they courtship sufficiently surprising, and Myrna Loy is perfectly good but oddly irrelevant — but even if the film falls just short of greatness in its last hour, it remains top-flight stuff whenever March or Russell is on screen. Overall, it strikes me as almost the summary statement of Wyler's career: shrewd, humanistic and powerfully layered, an honourable and unpretentious achievement which stands its ground, neither giving in to maudlin awards-bait theatrics nor pretending to solve all its characters' problems in one go. Ben-Hur (#1) and Dodsworth (#2) will need to be pretty damn good to beat this.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) A—
The Heiress (1949) A—
The Children's Hour (1961) B+
Mrs Miniver (1942) B
Funny Girl (1968) B—


HKM said...

re. cahiers -- yer man andre bazin rilly rilly liked wyler, or at least his work with toland, for the same reason he liked welles.

but this is the thing: does that make him an auteur or a m-e-s?

coz taken to an extreme bazin's jones for deep focus is almost about *not liking* direction...

StinkyLulu said...

Holler when you're hitting Ben Hur -- I've been dragging my heels on that one & really must watch it soon.

Goran said...

I don't agree that Wyler could be categorised as a metteur en scene - I think his directorial stamp is highly distinctive, at least through his early career. There's a particular air of grace and nostalgia all through Dodsworth, The Little Foxes and The Best Years of Our Lives, and even The Heiress and Wuthering Heights, that doesn't exist in any other filmmaker's work - certainly not in the same way. I think Wyler has a distinctive sensibility and that it comes through very vividly - and elegantly - in his stronger films. He's much more subtle than the majority of Film-School-101 "AUTEURS", but this subtlety adds to his distinctness - particularly in the context of efficient Hollywood studio productions, where subtlety was often notably lacking. (Of course all these claims could only ever be subjective. I can't help it though, I get protective around Wyler.)

Also, I doubt that Wyler ever made a worse film than Ben-Hur (though Mrs. Miniver is nearly as pretentious), whereas I know for a fact that he made several better ones.

If I were to rank the films of his I've seen so far:

The Great:
Dodsworth (1936)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Wuthering Heights (1939)

The Very Good:
Dead End (1937)
The Little Foxes (1941)
Roman Holiday (1953)
The Heiress (1949)
The Letter (1940)

The He-Didn't-Really-Mean-It:
Jezebel (1938)
Mrs. Miniver (1942)
The Big Country (1958)
Ben-Hur (1959)

Not Goran said...

Today's tip for Goran:

I apologise in his name.


why have none of my friends (internet or otherwise), even those who see movies with the regularity with which most folks eat ever seen seen DODSWORTH (1936)?

It's Wyler's best (imho) and I'm starting to get a complex that nobody listens to my frequent requests that everyone in the world see it.

p.s. I think Ben-Hur is pretty remarkable in its specific big epic way... but it can wait until you get a big screen opportunity. (seriously)

tim r said...

@Goran: No need to be protective, we're loving Wyler here! I wonder if you're slightly undervaluing what the Cahiers chaps originally meant by metteur en scene — it's invoked quite often now as a term of insult or faint praise, which is not the way I meant it or that they would have in reference to a director of his taste and talent. I may be wrong, but I think he'd have been considered a very notable metteur en scene at the top end of the bracket, with, threaded through here and there, the personal touch you're talking about. (His fondness for brass music cues ties the movies together a lot for me, as do certain elements in the photography.) Writers like Bazin, it's clear, preferred him to their least liked auteurs.

What's telling to me is that you consider Wyler's early films the distinctive ones, and reckon he sold out later with stuff like Ben-Hur, as this means that he followed the opposite path to most of the Cahiers-endorsed auteurs, who graduated from m-e-s journeywork to films with their personal stamp all over them. Funny Girl, to take one of his later, weaker pictures, doesn't strike me as a work authored by anyone other than Barbra Streisand, and Wyler's credentials for auteur status are further undermined by the strict definition of the politique — though, as I understand it, this isn't a sine qua non — because of the fact that he hardly ever took a script credit.

My own template for playing the who's-an-auteur game tends to be whether you can stick the indefinite article in front of them: you can watch "a Ford" or "a Hitchcock" or "a Rohmer" and you know pretty much what you're going to be getting, but I think "a Wyler" is likely to lead you off in too many different directions. But I'll grant you that I need to see more of his films to decide, as he strikes me as a fairly borderline case, perhaps someone with auteur potential who was happy to reinvent himself as an old stager later for the studios. And why quibble over categories anyway when the work is so good! It's my bad for getting us into this.

@Nat: Just made amends by ordering it from amazon. Thanks!

@hkm: The pic at the top of my post is a great example of deep focus in action, dontcha think? (That's Dana Andrews making a crucial phone call at the very, very back of the frame.)

Patrick said...

Nice stuff on Wyler, probably my favorite director. If you didn't know - he said that he felt like he had some experience with what each of the 3 returning military men went through in Best Years of Our Lives. He went overseas to make documentaries during WW2: like Dana Andrews he flew in a B17 on several bombing missions (very dangerous and very gutsy of Wyler), like March he was separated from his family while overseas, and like Russell he suffered a permanent disability, in his case severe loss of hearing, to the point where he was unsure if he could continue to direct.

One word on his movies - try The Big Country. On first viewing I thought it was all good except for the ending, which seems overblown, but even that I now don't mind. Now one of my favorite Wyler movies and an underrated one I think.