Fanny and Alexander

Fanny and Alexander

Fanny and Alexander won four Academy Awards at the Oscars in 1984 and was the first foreign movie to have done so. No foreign movie has ever won more and Ingmar Bergman’s film has only been matched twice in the years since – by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Parasite (2019). At the time it was the most expensive film ever to come out of Sweden and was designed by Bergman to be his last, a grand autobiographical flourish to explain the man behind a remarkable run of astonishing movies as the director started to look back at his accomplishments.

With that autobiographical aspect in mind, and armed with the knowledge that Bergman’s films tend towards a certain austere, protestant severity, welcome to the most lavishly dressed sets you’re ever likely to see (that’s one Oscar, right there, to Anna Asp and Susanne Lingheim), and some of the most ravishingly sumptuous cinematography ever committed to celluloid (another Oscar, to DP Sven Nykvist) in the opening scenes of this three-hour-plus epic tracing a couple of traumatic years in the life of Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve), though to all intents and purposes we can forget Fanny, who is barely in it, and switch out the first name Alexander for Ingmar. There’s no real doubt what’s going on here and who it’s really about.

The film divides neatly into two parts, Before and After, with a kind of happy ending coda tacked on at the end, the watershed being the death of the father of Alexander (and Fanny). Before then we’ve been introduced to the whole massive Ekdahl clan, a well-to-do, liberal theatrical family just preparing for the Christmas festivities in the first years of the 20th century – candles are lit, tables are laid, servants are harried, children are chivvied and the family assembles for one of those upstairs/downstairs events where everyone behaves much as you expect from having watched many things like this before. One of the servants ends up in bed with one of the men from upstairs, one family member has money worries, a longterm “secret” relationship bubbles along in the semi-open as the family pretends it isn’t happening. And so on.

Bergman reassures to deceive, laying on the colour red – carpets, walls, whole rooms – and the lush interiors, the sense of hail-fellow-well-met bonhomie to this degree the better to contrast with what is to follow, when Fanny and Alexander’s father, theatrical old buffer Oscar (Allan Edwall) dies, and in short order their mother marries again, to a bishop, only realising afterwards that she’s made a terrible, unalterable mistake.

The mother and the bishop were meant to have been played by Bergman old hands Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow but instead Ewa Fröling and Jan Malmsjö take the roles. Both rise to the challenge, Fröling helped by the fact that she resembles Ullmann a touch, whereas Malmsjö, a song and dance man, is remarkable as the bishop whose sanctimonious brand of pious Christianity may or may not be just the surface decoration on top of something even more unyielding and cold beneath.

The bishop and Emilie framed by a window
After: the bishop and his new wife

The source of Bergman’s complex relationship with religion and Christianity is revealed in increasingly unpleasant/abusive scenes set in the bishop’s home, where the cleric sets about “fixing” Alexander’s vivid imagination (a tendency to tell tall stories). Here, the cleric’s mother and sister dress in sober clothes and the house is decorated in whitewashed walls and furnished with simple wooden tables and chairs – all very nice if you bought them in a moment of Shaker-inspired interior-design frenzy, less so if that’s all there is and the temperatures outside (and inside) are sub zero.

That’s all there is to this film. He (sorry, they, the kids) live in the lap of loveliness, dad dies, then they don’t, and what was once all diamonds is now rust. Love is replaced by tough love. Plenty with austerity. Colour with monochrome. Kindness with strictness. It would all seem too simplisitic except that Bergman lays on the surface detail, interior and exterior decoration to a level that is boggling. Similarly, the acting is rich and vivid, occasionally shading deliberately into pantomime, while Bergman gives the lie to the idea that he’s somehow all about naturalism with moments straight from the melodrama playbook – a thunderbolt and flash of lightning at the key encounter between the bishop and Alexander which is so cliched it’s (deliberately?) amusing.

Neither Pernilla Allwin or Bertil Guve, who play the titular kids, made a career in acting, but both are excellent, Bergman carefully never exposing them to direct comparison with the likes of Jarl Kulle (who plays their fun-loving uncle, and who you might remember from Babette’s Feast, another winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar) or Gunn Wållgren, the real star of the show, playing the ageing materfamilias around whom the massive clan constellates.

The film wasn’t even designed as a film. Instead Bergman conceived it as a TV series, which was meant to have been released first (and would have probably ruined the film’s Oscar chances if that had happened) but in the end came a year later and clocks in at five hours plus change. The TV series itself was also eventually edited together, so if Bergman-to-the-max is what you’re after, then that’s the way to go. Bergman himself preferred the long-long version (and there is an even longer cut somewhere, approaching six hours, which was his absolute favourite).

As for “final film”, Bergman continued working for another 20 fruitful years. He always was a tricky customer.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Nightmare Alley

Stan and Zeena

2021’s Nightmare Alley isn’t based on the 1947 film noir of the same name, so we’re told by various venerable authorities. Tell that to the judge. Even if it genuinely is a bona fide and honest reworking of the same source material, William Lindsay Gresham’s smash 1946 novel, even a quick look at the 1947 movie is enough to convince anyone that this Nightmare Alley has seen the older one, taken notes and then studied them hard.

This extends to the casting choices. These start with Bradley Cooper as the grifter who starts out as a nobody in a carnival, works his way to the top of showbiz with a mentalist routine, over-reaches himself and is suddenly chuted back to way lower than where he started. As both movies bring down the curtain, a broken Stanton Carlisle (Cooper here, Tyrone Power originally) is about to play the bottom of the bill, as The Geek, the booze-sodden, cage-dwelling half-man/half-beast who terrifies carnival crowds by dementedly biting the head off a live chicken.

Other roles go to read-acrosses of the original cast. Even down to hair colour in the case of the three significant women in Stan’s life. There’s Zeena the seen-it-all-dearie carnival seer who teaches Stan the carnival ropes, played by a blonde Toni Collette. Molly (dark-haired Rooney Mara), the sweet, innocent thing who runs off with Stan after he’s stolen the secrets to Zeena’s mentalist act. And Stan’s ultimate nemesis, blonde femme fatale Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett in another of those vagina dentata roles).

It’s a Guillermo del Toro film and so a) it’s way too long, b) del Toro’s love of the elaborate picturesque often gets in the way of the drama and c) it cries out “Look, Ma, I’m making Cinema! Cinema! I tell you” from its opening shot to its last, the camera never still when it can be gliding, sliding, craning up and down, moving in and out.

Molly and Stan in a dressing room
Going up: Molly and Stan

Del Toro is one of world’s most luxuriant film-makers and Nightmare Alley is best approached as an exercise in visual spectacle. There is lots to enjoy at this level, though again the 1947 film is the noirish reference point. Considering how much money and computer whatnot del Toro has compared to 1947 director Edmund Goulding, you’d expect him to outgun the older director in every department. But interestingly, in the spectacular climax – when Stan’s mentalism almost bags him a fortune courtesy of a desperate rich magnate (Richard Jenkins) who wants a glimpse of his dead daughter – Goulding leaves del Toro sprawling in the dust.

Tyrone Power was the original star and though he made the film to get away from being typecast as a horny pirate or a strapping caballero, the camera of Goulding (and ace DP Lee Garmes) repeatedly got right up in his face for massive shots of Power’s pert features. Del Toro and DP Dan Laustsen (who also worked on The Shape of Water and Crimson Peak, though his best work is on the remarkable-looking Norwegian film Headhunters) also go large, and there are some fabulous close-ups, Bradley Cooper fans, particularly when Stan is dealing with brittley sexy shrink Dr Lilith. This really is a film that’s worth seeing on as big a screen as you can possibly manage, assuming you believe (sorry, Martin Scorsese, who took out adverts imploring people to go out and see it) that it’s worth seeing at all.

No, I didn’t like it much. It’s half an hour longer than the original, which is also too long, and has exactly the same arc, hits the same plot beats and yet manages to drain almost all of the drama out on its journey. Is this Stanton a wrong’un, as the original made clear? Or just a drifter who doesn’t know when to say “enough”? Del Toro doesn’t seem sure, and the soundtrack by Nathan Johnson reinforces that impression with its relentless stuf-stuff-stuffstuffstuff-is-about-to-happen vamping. Stuff does happen, but most of it doesn’t mean a stuff.

There’s one great moment in it, one genius del Toro sequence reminding us of how good he can be, right after Stanton has been exposed as the terrible fraud he is, has committed a couple of bloody crimes in rapid succession and is then driving away like the wind through a snowy night. In lights, camera and action, Del Toro catches the desperate, droomed drama of the moment. All his guns are suddenly firing in the same direction. Like the car, the movie suddenly seems to be motoring. Too late. Ten minutes later Nightmare Alley is all over.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Nightmare Alley

Zeena and Stanton in a carnival truck

1947’s Nightmare Alley is lavish, melodramatic, contains a hint of the supernatural and is a touch too long – you can see why Guillermo Del Toro wanted to remake it. It’s also a great role for a matinee idol trying to shrug off a pretty-boy tag (Tyrone Power even more so than Bradley Cooper in the remake).

In a tale about a carnival worker tasting the heights and then plunging into the depths, Jules Furthman’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s best-seller plays the hubris card early on, in a little speech in which carnie Stanton Carlisle (Power) explains himself. “You see those yokels out there,” he says to mindreader Zeena (Joan Blondell), laying out what it means to him to be a carnie. “It gives you sort of a superior feeling… as if you were in the know and they were on the outside looking in.”

By the end, Stanton has ridden to the top, also as a mentalist, having stolen big-hearted Zeena’s act, then married naive bimbo Molly (Coleen Gray) and finally met his match in tough-as-nails femme fatale Dr Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker). And he’s touched bottom, in outro scenes where he’s now back in the carnival “starring” as The Geek, a half-man, half-beast who’s kept alive on hooch and biscuits. How the mighty have fallen. “How can a guy get so low?” one carnie asks the carnival owner. “He reached too high,” is the answer.

Furthman clearly wants us to see Stanton as an Icarus “reaching too high” and being scorched by success. But in fact Stanton’s trajectory is much more obviously exactly what you’d expect from a Hollywood story of the era about a heel straightforwardly getting his just deserts. “The sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime,” as the studio code (the Hays Code) put it.

Dr Ritter and Stanton
The doctor and the huckster

You can see why Power wanted to do Nightmare Alley. As a character, Power’s fine matinee looks to one side, Stanton is a man with few positives, a schemer and charmer ascending the slippery pole mainly by deceiving women. This was his favourite film and he puts on a fine, intense performance that’s a world away from the swashbuckling roles that made his name. It allowed him to act rather than just stand about in postures vaguely reminiscent of Douglas Fairbanks.

Having Power in the role is probably why the film is longer than your average noir – this film has a budget, too, and is beautifully shot by DP Lee Garmes, whose bizarre focusing decisions early on (the back of Molly’s head rather than Stanton’s face – that’s just wrong) cannot detract from the fact that this is a gorgeous looking film. The cast is good too – Blondell, Gray and Walker standouts as the three very different women in Stanton’s life might fit neatly into the Freudian id/ego/superego paradigm, and the fact that Walker is playing a shrink (a carnival huckster in finer threads, the film suggests) lends the idea some weight. Hollywood screenwriters at the time were obsessed with psychoanalyis.

Edmund Goulding directs with invisible pazzazz, upping the rhythm of the actors’ line delivery and the movements of his camera as the drama wends towards its pitiless climax. Music is notably absent up front and Cyril Mockridge only starts to add punctuating melodramatic stabs as matters come to a head, particularly as Stanton over-reaches himself and unwittingly engineers his own downfall.

By the end, there is an echo of the finale of Tod Browning’s Freaks as Stanton gets his comeuppance at the hands of the carnival crowd, having taken a swig of gin ten minutes before the end and then – in fine melodramatic style – become almost instantly an alcoholic who can’t find the bottom of a bottle fast enough.

The original ending was bleak as hell, and so studio boss Darryl F Zanuck tacked on that happyish end, which is easily ignored. It didn’t fool the public, which wasn’t ready to see the swaggering star of many an adventure on the high seas dressed in a T shirt (an early sighting) and behaving like an utter bastard. Nightmare Alley bombed. Not so Del Toro’s remake.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022


Roxanne and Cyrano

If the tricky bit in musicals is the moment when people transition into song, what about the quasi-musical? Cyrano demonstrates that the problem isn’t doubled but squared – every time Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett or Kelvin Harrison Jr burst into song, it’s a genuine shock. The fact that the actual songs are a bit hit and miss is an added burden.

In Edmond Rostand’s original story, Cyrano de Bergerac is the warrior poet with a massive nose and effortlessly spectacular language skills who falls badly for Roxanne, his ideal of femininity, but then helps a fellow soldier – handsome but dim Christian – woo her with his words, knowing that he has no chance himself.

This version keeps all the particulars in place – the key characters of brilliant Cyrano, flighty Roxanne and strapping Christian, the setting in the sort of duelling-capes-and feathery-hats France that Gene Kelly might inhabit – with just one minor tweak. This Cyrano (Dinklage) is blighted by his diminutive stature rather than a massive conk.

Talking of rivals, this film has a few. The gold-standard 1950 one starring José Ferrer, the 1990 one starring a very well cast Gérard Depardieu, and Steve Martin’s Roxanne from 1987, not forgetting the three-hour TV movie starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. None of these is a musical. If you’re looking for one, how about the ill-fated Cyrano de Bergerac based on Rostand’s original material, written by Lesley Bricusse and Frank Wildhorn. It was due to open in London in 2006, but didn’t, then was meant to debut in Spain in 2009, but didn’t. It finally opened in Tokyo, closed three weeks later, then re-opened again in Osaka for three days before disappearing again. Other musical adaptations have fared slightly better – a 1973 one with music by Michael J Lewis and a libretto by Anthony Burgess, or the Dutch one from 1991, which managed a run on Broadway but didn’t manage to produce a cast recording of the show.

Kelvin Harrison Jr as Christian
Kelvin Harrison Jr as Christian

This 2021 version started life on Broadway, and is written by Erica Schmidt, aka Mrs Dinklage. The songs are by the Dessner brothers, Aaron and Bryce, with lyrics by man-and-wife team Matt Berninger and Carin Besser, all of whom are connected with the band the National. As said, they are a mixed musical bag, at their most cringeworthy early on when Berninger/Besser attempt some lame raps in the Hamilton mould (“tears” and “mirrors” will not rhyme, however hard Peter Dinklage’s silver tongue might try). But the quality of the tunes does improve as the film progresses and they do eventually cease being songs in search of a hook. Overcome is the standout, and is beautifully sung by Dinklage and Bennett, though Wherever I Fall runs it close, Glen Hansard (of the musical Once) popping up to sing a few poignant lines as a soldier writing to his wife on the eve of his death.

For all the many mentions in publicity material that this was shot on the streets and in the ancient buildings of Sicily – and the locations are stunningly photographed by DP Seamus McGarvey – this Cyrano is a stagebound affair, and the more director Joe Wright uses camera movement and overhead shots, gloriously choreographed crowd scenes etc, the more stubbornly stagebound it feels. There’s something in the declamatory performances of all concerned (including the generally unimpeachable Dinklage) which should have been removed in the transition from stage to screen, but hasn’t been.

Kelvin Harrison Jr is a buff, lusty fellow and you can imagine the silly Roxanne going a bundle on his looks, and Ben Mendelsohn turns up as one of those rouged old libertines who means to have Roxanne’s virtue by hook or by crook. Both fine turns, though of course the film isn’t about them. Monica Dolan, as Roxanne’s wise old nurse and chaperone, is also very good, and feels like something out of Shakespeare, lurking as a touchstone in the background the entire time (the real Cyrano was born just after Shakespeare died).

It’s… nice. Damning with faint praise, maybe, but that’s what it is – nicely written, nicely played, nicely sung, good looking, fun enough, clever enough, with songs you can (sometimes) hum and performances that do no wrong. Sunday afternoon fare. The sort of film you’d sit down to watch with the family and then find you’d slept through most of it.

Cyrano – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022


Laura with Shelby Carpenter

A complex psychological thriller masquerading as a film noir, 1944’s Laura is about three men who are bewitched by a woman so ethereally, transcendentally beguiling that it is entirely appropriate that, when director Otto Preminger takes the curtain up, Laura (Gene Tierney) is already dead.

What follows is a basic whodunit pulled in various unusual directions. A for-instance: the cop on the case, Detective McPherson (Dana Andrews), invites one of the men suspected of killing her, Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), to accompany him while he cross-examines other witnesses. What cop does that? Another: the cop doesn’t do very much actual investigating and instead spends an inordinate amount of time in the dead woman’s apartment, making big moony eyes at a portrait of Laura hanging on the wall, as if it’ll tell him who did the deed.

The two other men in the dead Laura’s life are men with bits missing. Though it’s never stated up front, acid-penned columnist Lydecker is a homosexual whose relationship with Laura has been of the courtly older gent/young ingenue variety, though he, bucking against the constraints of his sexuality, wants more, much more. Vincent Price plays Shelby Carpenter, the would-be playboy of the western world who’s held back by a lack of cash and is hoping to rectify the situation by marrying the self-made Laura.

Neither man has the full complement of what Laura needs. If only decent, stand-up McPherson – a red-blooded male happy to live within his means – had met Laura while she were alive.

Lydecker in his bath meet cop McPherson
Lydecker meets the cop

The casting is spot on. Preminger (who also produced) fought hard to get Webb for the role of Lydecker, and won out against the wishes of studio boss Darryl F Zanuck, who was unhappy about the star’s open homosexuality, when this was what Preminger – who had an instinct for a lurid tabloid sell – wanted him for. Price is suave to the point of being reptilian, in the days before he’d begun his slide into grand guignol. Andrews is particularly good, and plays what is essentially a mad role – the infatuated cop – with a great deal of subtlety and restraint.

There are two important women. Laura, of course, with Tierney doing good work as the go-getter who takes the breaks offered to her by Lydecker and becomes a lone female force in the male-dominated world of advertising. What’s particularly good about her performance is the way she catches the beautiful woman’s in-built expectation that men will fall over themselves to be near her. As a kind of shadow version of Laura is the nicely over the top (as ever) Judith Anderson, four years on from playing Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, and here playing the doomed friend of Carpenter, unrequited love busting out all over and with not quite enough of what Laura’s got to get what Laura gets.

Preminger always had a taste for the melodramatic and squeezes the mood from initially highly frivolous (when the cop first meets Lydecker, Lydecker is in the bath) to incredibly fraught. The scene towards the end where the cop announces over the telephone, and in front of a room full of people hanging on his every word, that he’s about to arrest the murderer just as soon as he’s finished this call, is a bravura bit of writing and directing Agatha Christie would have been proud of.

It’s a country-house murder-mystery with an urban (and urbane) update, and Preminger is at pains to keep everything moving as if on castors, so much so that the one sharp move in the whole film really generates a frisson.

A triumph for Preminger, a rebuke for Zanuck, who not only hadn’t wanted Webb but didn’t want Preminger to direct and even forced a contrived rewritten finale on his director. Preminger, a bull at a gate, got what he wanted in all three instances, and was vindicated when Laura became one of the big hits of the year. Laura’s Theme – later recorded by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald – was a big hit too.

Laura – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022