Monthly Archives: November 2016

  • Island in the Sun

    Robert Rossen (1957)

    Watching Island in the Sun took me back to childhood in more ways than one.  The film’s pleasant title theme was one of Harry Belafonte’s biggest hits: it reached number three in the UK pop charts in 1957 and was played regularly on the radio for years after that.  When I was growing up, cinema bills often featured a travelogue short before the main picture.  Although the story’s setting is a fictional Caribbean island (called Santa Marta), Robert Rossen spends a good deal of time presenting the beautiful seascape of Barbados and Grenada, where he shot the movie:  the effect is like having travelogue and feature film combined in a single entity.  The lyrics of ‘Island in the Sun’, which Belafonte wrote with Irving Burgie and sings over the opening credits, have only a vague connection with what’s to follow but the song’s lulling melody foreshadows a piece of extraordinarily listless storytelling.  The languor induced by bright blue skies and hot golden sands seems to have affected most of the movie’s cast and crew.

    Island in the Sun, based on a best-selling novel of 1955 by Alec Waugh and with a screenplay by Alfred Hayes, describes several male-female relationships, including interracial ones.  The proud young political activist David Boyeur (Belafonte) attracts Mavis Norman (Joan Fontaine), who’s white, rich and a good bit older than him (though this age difference isn’t acknowledged).  The island’s assistant governor (John Justin) courts a beautiful salesgirl (Dorothy Dandridge).  The Fleury family are long-established plantation owners on Santa Marta.  A visiting American journalist (Hartley Power, best known for his role as Michael Redgrave’s fellow-ventriloquist in Dead of Night) discovers that the Fleury paterfamilias Julian (Basil Sydney) has Afro-Caribbean blood in his veins.  The news threatens his daughter Jocelyn (Joan Collins)’s prospects of marriage to Euan (Stephen Boyd), the son of the Santa Marta governor, Lord Templeton (Ronald Squire), until Mrs Fleury (Diana Wynyard) reveals another buried family secret – that Julian isn’t Jocelyn’s biological father.

    The Fleurys’ son Maxwell (James Mason) looks about the same age as his mother but turns out to have different problems.  Mistakenly convinced that his wife (Patricia Owens) is having an affair with ladies’-man war hero Hilary Carson (Michael Rennie), Maxwell accidentally-on-purpose kills this imagined rival.  Maxwell also bids for election to the state legislature – a campaign that ends, thanks to David Boyeur’s intervention at a rally, in humiliating failure.  It takes an age for any of these dramas to take shape:  this isn’t the result of subtlety or complexity but of flat-footed direction.  You could drive a fleet of trucks through some of the pauses in the dialogue, and there’s nothing going on between the actors during the intervening silences.  It’s not unusual for a 1950s film to be blighted by an over-explanatory score:  in this case, you’re often grateful to Malcolm Arnold’s music for telling you what emotions a scene is meant to produce.  It would be kind to describe the various stories as interwoven.  Maxwell is brought to justice by the local police chief (John Williams), whose invocations of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment worsen the killer’s guilty conscience:  the Fleury parents don’t react at all to their son’s conviction.

    It will be clear from the above that Island in the Sun draws on substantial racial and historical themes – miscegenation, the differing social acceptability of mixed marriages according to the gender of the non-white partner, the political scene in the twilight of British colonialism and before the dawn of Caribbean islands’ independence.  For the most part, though, these themes aren’t thoroughly explored or dramatised:  they’re either used as plot mechanisms or covered in one-off chunks  of dialogue.  James Mason, for reasons best known to himself, chooses this occasion to speak in his native West Yorkshire accent though it’s confused with posher notes; Stephen Boyd overlays his Country Antrim brogue with something similar.  The bizarre result, in both cases, sounds rather West Indian – enough to make you wonder if miscegenation is going to turn out to be even more epidemic than you’d thought.  The acting is mostly primitive – honourable exceptions include Diana Wynyard, Ronald Squire and, in a few bits, Joan Fontaine.  Island in the Sun was both controversial and a considerable box-office success in 1957 but the film is nowadays probably more interesting to read about than to sit through.  At one point, Euan and Jocelyn arrive back at the Fleurys’ mansion after an evening of nookie.  Jocelyn’s going to pretend they’ve been to see The Red Shoes at the island picture house but is worried her mother may ask follow-up questions.  ‘So what was the film like?’ she asks Euan.  ‘A bit long,’ he replies.  They giggle.  It’s true The Red Shoes isn’t short but Island in the Sun making this joke at its expense brings pot and kettle to mind.

    13 November 2016

  • Shaft

    Gordon Parks (1971)

    Shaft isn’t a work of much imagination or artistry but you wouldn’t argue with its selection by the Library of Congress (in 2000) for preservation in the US National Film Registry – as a movie deemed ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’.  This blaxpoitation picture had an African-American director and star but two of the white men involved link it to other famous detective films of the period.  Shaft is based on a 1970 novel of the same name by Ernest Tidyman, who adapted it for the screen with John F D Black:  Tidyman also wrote the script for another New York-set crime story of 1971, William Friedkin’s The French Connection.  Released three months after Shaft, Friedkin’s film, like Gordon Parks’s, gets plenty of grungy vitality from the New York City locations in which it was shot.  In Tidyman’s novel, the private detective John Shaft is white; on screen, he’s black, shrewd and self-possessed – a badass, maverick cousin of the immaculate, upstanding Detective Virgil Tibbs, played by Sidney Poitier in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967).  The screenplay for that fine movie was by Stirling Silliphant, who executive-produced Shaft.

    In an exhilarating overture, Richard Roundtree’s title character strides around New York Streets, charismatic and entitled.  He’s accompanied by the opening credits and Isaac Hayes’s famous (Oscar-winning) ‘Theme from Shaft’ but Gordon Parks quickly makes clear that the protagonist is a decidedly independent operator, as well as a smooth one.  Shaft has connections and information that the city’s police are keen to share but he enjoys frustrating his main NYPD contact (Charles Cioffi, who played a key role in Klute – another strong 1971 crime movie).   The hero’s middle-class girlfriend (Gwenn Mitchell) owns her own boutique and apartment but not Shaft, who has sex with other women, white as well as black.  Although he tells one of them that ‘I got two problems, baby, I was born black and I was born poor’, the personally and sexually self-confident John Shaft is no one’s idea of disadvantaged.  He lives in a sleek bachelor pad.   He’s a distinctively sharp dresser – leather coat, check suits and sport jackets, turtleneck sweaters – yet he’s too canny to be a peacock.  Shaft is so cool that he keeps his spare gun in the icebox.

    Gordon Parks described Shaft as ‘a Saturday night fun picture which people go to see because they want to see the black guy winning’.  Shaft wins repeatedly, in black and white company, and the forces he confronts keep turning from adversaries into allies.  He sorts out a couple of black gangsters (in one case, lethally).  They’re members of a Harlem-based crime family, headed by Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), whose daughter Marcy has been kidnapped.  Bumpy employs Shaft to secure her safe release.  At first, it seems Marcy’s kidnapping may be part of a New York race war and her abductors Ben Buford (Christopher St John) and his Lumumbas – a Black Panthers-inspired outfit.  It transpires that Marcy (Sherri Brewer) is being held captive by white Mafiosi:  Buford and the other brothers join forces with Shaft in a commando-style operation to free her.  This is Shaft’s climactic win.

    The story is set in the early months of 1971 in a New York City, which, after the film’s opening fanfare, is predominantly cold, cramped and dilapidated.  (One or two of the street scenes, as shot by Urs Furrer, almost anticipate Taxi Driver.)  Richard Roundtree, although a bit effortful when he’s doing forceful, is very good in Shaft’s more casual moments, and always magnetic.   The other acting is mostly broad and occasionally bad but the film is consistently entertaining – there’s plenty of mayhem but the register of this, in spite of the reality of the settings, is closer to the world of James Bond than to The French Connection.  I hadn’t seen Shaft before and I enjoyed it more in long retrospect than I think I might have done on its original release:  like some other things in BFI’s ‘Black Star’ season, it gains through being seen in a historical context.   A major commercial success, the picture spawned two film sequels (Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973)), a TV series (1973-74) and a 2000 cinema reboot (starring Samuel L Jackson as the original hero’s nephew, John Shaft II).  Needless to say, none of the later movies has made it – not yet, anyway – into the National Film Registry canon.

    10 November 2016

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