Friday, 14 August 2015

Chalk and Cheese

The two films under discussion today have absolutely nothing in common other than my wanting to write about them, for reasons which may or may not become apparent. At any rate they are the two from the past week's collection which lingered in my mind for possibly all the wrong reasons...

The Great Profile (1940): I have occasionally written about John Barrymore and he remains a great favourite of mine -- a genius actor with a fatally self-destructive bent. From a dynasty of famous actors and coming from the stage, he and his siblings Lionel and Ethel were movie stalwarts from the silent days. However, unlike those two, John was never recognized by the Academy with nominations or awards; yet he was probably the greatest actor of the three. Unfortunately he is little remembered today, especially by those who forget that movies existed before 1975 (!) or by those who only know of him as Drew's grandpa.

Considered the supreme Hamlet of his day, his film roles remain supremely watchable, even if his deadly attraction to drink undermined his natural talents. This movie was his fourth from last before his untimely death in 1942 and all of his late films are B-flicks at best, only saved by his indomitable joie de vivre. He may have tackled all of these roles through an alcoholic haze, reading his lines from cue cards, but he remains magnetic. In this film, originally intended for Adolphe Menjou but rewritten for the Great Profile himself here named Evan Garrick, he reappears from a three-day bender, desperate for work. The plot seems to have been written from his own life -- he may have been one of the greats once upon a time, but no one is willing to back the dissolute star.

Enter l7-year old Anne Baxter with a terrible play that she has penned and which she implores him to read. When Garrick and his fly-by-night producer Gregory Ratoff learn that her fiancĂ© is wealthy, they are suddenly eager to stage the sorry drama. The first night audience sit stone-faced through the first act, but when Garrick has a few little drinkies before the next act, the play degenerates into pure farce much to the playgoers' delight. On one level this satiric spoof is very sad given one's knowledge of Barrymore's own history, but at a very simple level the subsequent slapstick is nothing short of hilarious. Po-faced Baxter does her best to reform him, but Garrick/Barrymore was well past reforming at this point of his ultimately disastrous career. How the mighty have fallen, but the actor's late 'ham' remains succulent.

No Name on the Bullet (1959): Having written recently that I am no great fan of minor Western movies, I was pleasantly surprised by this unusual oater. Audie Murphy, America's most decorated World War 2 hero, was turned into a most unlikely movie star by the studios. His acting talent was often derided and he himself never thought it was much of a profession for a grown man. Most of the films he made are forgettable, but this B-movie casts him against type as the villain of the piece, or more correctly as the anti-hero. He plays one John Gant, an assassin for hire, whose reputation precedes him. His clever ploy is that he has never been prosecuted as a contract killer, since he always goads his potential victim into drawing first and only responds in kind before witnesses.

When he rides into the small town here, nearly all of the populace are in dread, wondering whom he has come to kill and whether it might be they themselves. Old feuds and double-crosses rise to the surface, erupting in internal violence, as the baby-faced Gant (Murphy was 35 at the time but looked ever so young and innocent) bides his time. The second-tier supporting cast -- the likes of Charles Drake, R G Armstrong, Willis Bouchey, and Whit Bissel -- handle the tension nicely, but few of them come across as completely trustworthy or likeable, as they futilely attempt to drive Gant from the town. If anything the cool-headed Gant is among the more admirable personalities on display, even if his business is murder for cash. His intended victim does not come as a complete surprise, but the movie's denouement is sufficiently open-ended to be satisfying.  All in all, a more than competent small gem. 
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