“Cactus Flower” (1969)

Unexpected gem: Cactus Flower, directed by Gene Saks, viewed thanks to Turner Classic Movies. Saks, who also directed Barefoot in the Park (1967) and The Odd Couple (1968), worked a fair amount with writer/producer Neil Simon. More recently, he played Woody Allen’s father in Deconstructing Harry (1997).

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I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen Walter Matthau actually stand like that.

I thought it was starting off a bit awkwardly–a 24-year-old Goldie Hawn as Toni, only one year into her tenure at “Laugh-In,” in what looked like a hippiefied The Apartment (1960). Like Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik, Toni attempts to kill herself as the result of a love affair with an older, married man. Here, this crisis is merely the opening action. Her neighbor, Igor Sullivan (Rick Lenz), breaks in and enthusiastically gives her mouth-to-mouth.  And it was actually the script that seemed a bit awkward. But I was wrong–and how. The screenplay, adapted by I. A. L. Diamond, is a delight. And wouldncha know, he wrote The Apartment, as well, so maybe it is a technicolor dream version of that film. Diamond worked a fair amount with Billy Wilder. Here, his screenplay is based on the very successful stage play (1965, starring Lauren Bacall and Brenda Vaccaro) by Abe Burrows, itself an adaptation of a French play, Fleur de cactus, natch, by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, which premiered in 1964. And it turns out, Cactus Flower is the original of the recent Adam Sandler-Jennifer Aniston vehicle, Just Go With It (2011). Good grief.

But Cactus Flower isn’t just Apartment through kaleidoscopic love-in glasses; the plot is a post-War screwball comedy, the script full of screwballesque exchanges between men and women. I couldn’t find much at all on the French play, but surely Barillet and Grédy watched a lot of American films from the 30’s and 40s, absorbing the snappy dialogue. In fact, films like His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, and my favorite, The Awful Truth were themselves adapted from plays–to say nothing of Private Lives (1931) and The Women (1939).

Julian: I must say, it’s grotesque. A woman your age, throwing yourself at a kid like that!

Stephanie: And what about that eh, father-daughter thing of yours, if you don’t think that’s ridiculous…

Julian: Well, it’s different for a man. If a man is with a younger woman it looks entirely appropriate, but when it’s the other way around, it’s disg…

Stephanie: Well, you go to your church and I’ll go to mine.

Here, Walter Matthau plays dentist Julian Winston, who pretends to be married to avoid having to actually marry his mistress, Toni, with professional Classy Broad Ingrid Bergman as the prevaricating dentist’s loyal assistant, Stephanie Dickinson, who pretends to be the wife he’s divorcing when he decides he really does want to marry Toni. As in any good screwball, the lies people tell or pretenses they create to avoid romantic entanglements finally land them in the arms of their true partner.

Walter and Ingrid take five.

Walter and Ingrid take five.

What makes this film is the script and classy cast. Hawn won her only Oscar, for Supporting Actress, for Cactus Flower. (Her only other Oscar nomination was for Best Actress in Private Benjamin, eleven years later.) More trivia: Raquel Welch accepted Hawn’s Oscar for a role Tuesday Weld turned down. But it’s the amazing Bergman, in the first picture she filmed in America in about twenty years, who steals the show. Her performance here is a sort of loose relation to her Anna Kalman in 1958’s frothy Indiscreet (which was–you guessed it–adapted from a play). That film shares the bachelor-pretending-to-be-married premise.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8NNIKbhOL0&w=420&h=315]

The magic happens at about 2:25 in the clip. Ingrid Bergman learning to dance from Goldie Hawn. Priceless, with the best of connotations. The resolution leaves something to be desired; it looks like it was filmed from an LED set, thus making it look like a poor-quality live television show. (Reminded me a bit of “Three’s Company,” watching the clip.) I would never have thought of Bergman in a role like this–though Indiscreet is similar, she’s a highly-regarded actress living in what I remember as being a penthouse and dating a world reknowned economist, going to fancy parties and high-end restaurants. I thought Bergman was slumming a bit here (not in terms of company, but in material), but she is, of course, an excellent comedienne, and she pulls off the loosey-goosey late sixties silliness with her usual flair.

Hitchcock Double Vision

Blackmail (1929)

Det. Frank Webber (John Longren), Alice White (Anny Ondra), and Mr. White (Charles Paton)

On Tuesday, June 18, I got to see the silent and sound versions of Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) back to back at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences theater on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. The silent version, screened digitally, has been restored by the BFI in association with StudioCanal. The sound version was a 35mm print. Esteemed early film historian Kevin Brownlow wrote the program notes, preferring the silent version: “[W]hen I finally saw it, I thouBlackmail poster silentght it better directed and more convincing than the sound version.” And I have to agree. The sound version is fascinating and obviously innovative, but the silent is more compelling.

Interestingly, because Anny Ondra, the actress who played heroine-murderess Alice White, had a heavy Czech accent, all her lines were dubbed. Brownlow describes the voice Joan Barry used for the character of Alice as having a “fraitfully refained Mayfair accent.” (It’s unlikely most Americans would have noticed the disjunction between the accent and its context–Alice is a tobacconist’s daughter.) In any case, Brownlow says the sound version was “rejected in America because audiences had difficulty with the English accents.”

blackmail lobby cardThere are a lot of truly fantastic compositions in Blackmail. The obsessive shots of hands from beginning to end, the shadows, the framing…to say nothing of that über-weird jester painting—eesh. But one thing that struck me the second time around was the arrangement of actors during the blackmail-over-breakfast scene, when Tracy attempts to squeeze Alice. It wasn’t just that it looked familiar, but that the dynamic among the characters was familiar, too. It’s an arrangement that’s repeated in a few times in Blackmail (see the still and lobby card above).

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(L): In 1929: Frank, Alice, and Tracy (Donald Calthrop) 

(R): In 1959: Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), Eve Kendall (Eve Marie Saint), and Phillip Vandamm (James Mason)

It’s that odd auction-room stand-off between Roger Thornhill and Phillip Vandamm in Hitchcock’s 1959 North by Northwest. Two men stand over a woman and negotiate her future. By 1959, Hitch had figured out how to make that scene even creepier than it is in Blackmail. Trailing Eve Kendall to an auction house, Thornhill finds her, Vandamm, and the deliciously malevolent Leonard (Martin Landau) in the crowd. As the camera tracks back we see, from behind, the standing Vandamm stroking the back of Eve’s head and neck, like Blofeld with his evil fluffy white cat.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dl0JcK4-Dx0&w=420&h=315]

Thornhill approaches the trio—”The three of you together; now that’s a picture only Charles Addams could draw”—and a moment after he starts talking, the camera cuts to a quick shot of Eve, so we see her reaction to Thornhill’s presence. Thornhill and Vandamm go on sparing with each other, but, though Eve doesn’t speak again, the camera cuts back to her throughout the encounter, so that we are made uncomfortably aware of how Thornhill’s “peevish lover” act, as Vandamm so eloquently puts it, is cutting her to the quick. Of course, the other thing that happens during this chat is that Vandamm begins to suspect Eve of some emotional (and sexual) treachery. Unbeknownst to him, Thornhill is signing her death warrant. It is no accident Vandamm is acquiring the MacGuffin (a pre-Colombian statue equipped with top-secret microfilm) at an auction. Eve might as well be the lovely settee or that magnificent pair of Louis XVI chairs at the front of the room.

Fair warning and last call. Sold out to ….

jester