Friday, 20 March 2015

Sanctuary (1961) and Champagne (1928)

It was not really a problem to decide which film or films to write about this week. Unlike last week I was not faced with the task of choosing between an over-hyped new release versus a surprising indie. Instead, neither of the above movies is brilliant -- in fact you could go so far as to say that neither is particularly good -- but they both have at least one redeeming feature which makes them worthy of comment.

"Sanctuary" is a very vague re-make of "The Story of Temple Drake" (1933) which I reviewed in June last year. Both are based on Faulkner novels and both are travesties of the original source material. However whereas the 'pre-code' film starring Miriam Hopkins was solely a bowdlerized version of Faulkner's steamy Southern hijinks, this cleaned-up parable makes the earlier movie seem like Sodom and Gomorrah. A young and lithesome Lee Remick takes the Hopkins role of the feckless Southern belle, but all of the story's bare bones have altered. After she and her drunken beau, Bradford Dillman, take refuge at a bootlegger's cabin, she is raped by Candy Man, played here by Yves Montand and  described as a Cajun to account for his thick French accent. Rather than being repulsed by the brute, she ends up in the thrall of sexual satisfaction and decides to bunk up with him at the local brothel, treating us to a display of her fine body in a series of negligees. However when she believes him to have been killed in a car crash she returns to the sanctuary of Judge Daddy's plantation and the arms of Dillman (the beast she has murdered, her grandfather, and not her husband of choice in the previous movie).

In fact the only thing that makes this film of any interest is the participation of Odetta, the wonderful American folk-singer, in the role of her faithful black maid. This was her only cinema appearance until the late 70s and she majestically inhabits the part. When Montand rises from the dead and threatens to whisk away young matron Temple from her husband and two boys, Odetta kills the baby to shock Remick back to the realities of life. So noble Odetta bravely faces the gallows, knowing she has saved Temple to march off into the sunset with Dillman. What a crock!

The DVD of "Champagne" was purchased for completeness rather than anything else, since it was one of a very few Alfred Hitchcock movies I'd never seen. I think this now leaves "Juno and the Paycock" and "Mary" (both 1931) as the two missing culprits. Tell me, has anyone actually heard of or seen the latter film? Hitch spent five not very happy years at Elstree Studios between 1926 and 1931 and most of the ten movies he directed during this period are largely neglected. To be fair nearly all of them have redeeming qualities, and a few like "The Ring", "Downhill", and "Blackmail" are quite watchable. The consensus on "Champagne" is that this is one of his very worst movies and few have bothered to disagree. One critic described it as "dreadful" -- and the name of said critic: Alfred Hitchcock!

It's really not that bad at all, and there are plenty of the Master's trademarks in evidence -- inventive visuals, good sight-gags, and an intriguing blend of game-playing and lechery, all handled with a very light touch.  Betty Balfour -- a kind of British Mary Pickford clone billed locally as "Britain's Queen of Happiness" (!) plays the spoiled daughter of millionaire, Gordon Harker. To throw some cold water on her irresponsible behaviour and to prove that her beau, a very wooden Jean Braden, is only after her money, Harker pretends to have lost his fortune, forcing her to try to make her way in the world. Well she doesn't quite become a prostitute, but finds work as a 'flower-girl' at a seedy nightspot, where she is leered upon by "The Man", an evil-looking Ferdinand von Alten, actually a pal of her father's meant to keep an eye on things. Balfour demonstrates a certain comic sensibility in the role and furnishes the odd chuckle, but is not really the movie's saving grace. That would be the man in the director's chair, a youngish Hitchcock showing pleasant indications of the genius to come.  
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