Category Archives: Directed by William Wyler

Dead End (1937, William Wyler)

If you tilt to just the right angle, for a while you can see Dead End as the tale of three people from a poor neighborhood and how life has worked out for them as they got closer to their thirties. Humphrey Bogart grew from a “not too bad” young punk to a public enemy number one, infamous for killing eight men. Joel McCrea busted his ass to put himself through college, got an architecture degree, hasn’t been able to find a job. Sylvia Sidney has been working since age ten, first taking care of her mother, now younger brother Billy Halop. Unfortunately, it’s eventually impossible to keep the head at that tilt and you’ve got to acknowledge Sidney gets the shaft so the film can focus on Halop and his teen gang. Sort of. They infest the film, nothing better to do with their day–Dead End takes place over a single day—than go swimming in the East River, maybe bully then physically assault and rob rich kid Charles Peck; just kids being kids stuff… because the film’s only willing to go so far with its observations.

Dead End might go after classism and gentrification (back when White people were still gentrifying other White people), but it’s not going to go after toxic masculinity or misogyny. There isn’t a single teenage girl shown in the film—the boys in the gang haven’t discovered girls yet—and the only insight into their situation comes from Bogart and teen love Claire Trevor.

The first hour of the film—it runs just over ninety—is mostly Bogart’s. He’s around the dock, talking with the gang, talking with childhood “pal” McCrea, back home with twenty grand in his pocket in a roll, a new face courtesy the plastic surgeon, trying to see his mom (Marjorie Main) and ex Trevor. Allen Jenkins gets the relatively thankless part as Bogart’s sidekick, who’s there to remind him dames aren’t worth it and run errands as needed.

Most of the time Bogart’s behaving himself and somewhat likable. When he takes a turn for the dark, the film does a good job with it. Sadly the only reason he takes that turn for the dark is because his mom doesn’t want anything to do with him because he’s a stone cold killer who does nothing but bring reporters and cops to her door and shame to her name. Doesn’t help Main’s not good. Whatever she and director Wyler decided she should do with the part was the wrong decision. It’s an awkwardly bad scene. You keep waiting for there to be a point to Main’s take on the character and it never arrives.

Trevor’s in a more complicated situation. She gets a single scene, after Bogart talking about her for forty-five or so minutes; what happens to a girl from the poor neighborhood? She ends up in sex work, possibly with tuberculosis, rejected by psychopath Bogart for not being clean enough for him. As far as the acting goes in their scene, they’re both good. They’re amazing when Bogart’s not pretending he should be rejecting her—clearly the makeup people weren’t going to make Trevor look bad, just mildly cheap but still nice looking—but once he gets put out thinking about her not being virginal, the scene becomes a little rote. If only these women had stayed pure enough, maybe Bogart wouldn’t have to go back to a life of crime. Mind you, he’s checking in on them at age thirty-one after being away for ten years plus however long he was in reform school.

Makes you wish play author Sidney Kingsley and screenwriter Lillian Hellman did something with the female characters except martyr them.

Though there is the poor cleaning woman who steals food from a baby, during one of Wyler’s phenomenal background sequences. They shot Dead End on an elaborate set; mostly it’s just the main cast or gang hanging out, but occasionally there are these sequences showing the daily lives of the residents and Wyler does a great job with them. Beautiful Gregg Toland photography, good editing from Daniel Mandell. Sadly, while Toland’s photography is good (or better) throughout, Mandell’s not as good at cutting the dialogue scenes as the physical action ones. Sure, it’s understandable you’d need to cut around some of Halop and the gang’s acting, but it’s still jerky.

McCrea gets a subplot about kept woman Wendy Barrie—who the film doesn’t slut shame, which is kind of weird given it really sounds like she’s a mistress—who wants to run off with him, away from her rich boyfriend, but only if McCrea can support her right. McCrea’s trying.

Meanwhile, Sidney’s been in love with McCrea since they were kids but McCrea still sees her as a ten year-old. She starts the film with a subplot about striking at work and having to convince the men around her she’s justified and actually deserves to be paid for her work; that subplot shrinks, then disappears, as Sidney eventually just ends up supporting Halop’s youth criminal in training story arc.

The youth gang stuff in Dead End is poorly executed, mostly due to the performances, but also the writing. Their scenes are vaguely from their perspective, but they’re also on display as tragic figures. Except they’re also profoundly likable, whether it’s beating up new kid Bernard Punsly for three cents—trying to convince him to steal from his mother—or when they start beating rich kid Peck with boards. Peck’s an absurdly obnoxious caricature, but then so are all the kids in the gang. Wyler doesn’t seem to want to get into the conversation about how apathetic rich people mocking the trauma of poverty is going to boil over at some point so instead plays the assaults like antics.

Great performance from Bogart, okay ones from McCrea and Sidney. Bogart’s able to overcome his part’s slightness, McCrea and Sidney not so much. Barrie’s not memorable but it’s also a bad part because Barrie’s a woman. Trevor’s excellent, mostly because the film doesn’t keep her around long enough to ruin it. Jenkins is good, Ward Bond’s solid as the doorman to the rich apartment building, and James Burke’s fine as the beat cop.

Dead End’s technically outstanding—Wyler’s direction, Toland’s photography, Richard Day’s set design, Julia Heron’s set decoration—but can’t get as serious as it needs to be about its subject matter. The Code wouldn’t allow some of it, but going the route of piloting a “Dead End Kids” franchise for the teen cast, making Dead End the only “real film” entry in the franchise, is rather disappointing. It just seems like with such a potentially strong cast, such a gorgeous set, Wyler and company could’ve done something more with it than Dead End.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Lillian Hellman, based on the play by Sidney Kingsley; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Daniel Mandell; produced by Samuel Goldwyn; released by United Artists.

Starring Sylvia Sidney (Drina), Joel McCrea (Dave), Humphrey Bogart (‘Baby Face’ Martin), Billy Halop (Tommy), Allen Jenkins (Hunk), Wendy Barrie (Kay), Claire Trevor (Francey), Marjorie Main (Mrs. Martin), Huntz Hall (Dippy), Bobby Jordan (Angel), Leo Gorcey (Spit), Gabriel Dell (T.B.), Bernard Punsly (Milty), Charles Peck (Philip), Minor Watson (Mr. Griswald), James Burke (Mulligan), and Ward Bond (doorman).



The Heiress (1949, William Wyler)

My favorite moment in The Heiress is when Olivia de Havilland has a slight tremor, watching someone walk away after she’s just told them off. It’s this fantastic glimpse into her character. The film has something of a double twist ending, so it’s going to be hard to talk around various spoilers but suffice it to say de Havilland’s always got her guard up. You just don’t realize how guarded—shielded might be the better term—until later in the film. de Havilland goes through the film without a real confidant; there’s no opportunity to address de Havilland’s perception of the events. There are the occasional minor reveals in dialogue to provide character texture, nothing more. Otherwise, you’ve just got to trust de Havilland and director Wyler, without much to go on in the former’s case.

Wyler’s visibly breaking his ass from the start to do everything just right, however. Heiress is a play adaptation (of a novel) and de Havilland’s home is the main setting—with some big field trips away—but the house is the thing. Wyler and cinematographer Leo Tover compose these constrained, framed shots, which can’t be claustrophobic because de Havilland’s doesn’t feel trapped in the house. Quite the opposite, but Wyler and Tover still have to contend with the physical realities. Luckily the house is big enough and the floor plan’s right they can use tilts, drawing the audience’s attention to the importance of the passive information those shots cover.

It’s important later when characters are being (possibly) duplicitous and their body language is important. Heiress could open with a disclaimer informing the audience to watch people’s hands or they’re going to miss big plot moments.

Heiress runs almost two hours and the first ninety minutes or so has its own three act structure, based on the characters’ expectations. It starts with de Havilland getting ready for a party. It’s 1850, she’s the unmarried daughter of wealthy doctor Ralph Richardson, her mother is long dead and Richardson has done a crap job raising de Havilland for a combination of reasons but they mostly boil down, generally, to men are trash and, specifically, Richardson is an egomaniac. So his devil goatee is perfect. His sister, Miriam Hopkins, is a recent widow and has come to live with them, giving de Havilland a friend (though not confidant). Hopkins encourages de Havilland, something Richardson never does.

de Havilland’s shy, socially awkward, funny, smart, thoughtful, and kind. No one cares about those things in 1850, unfortunately; she’s supposed to be glamorous and sharp-witted. There’s some suggestion de Havilland’s the ugly duckling daughter of a famed beauty (who Richardson still blathers about), but basically she’s a “plain Jane” because she doesn’t pluck her eyebrows.

Enter Montgomery Clift, charming, well-spoken, and broke. It’s 1850 so it’s still possible to turn your blood blue in a single generation but Clift is more interested in enjoying life then working. He starts courting de Havilland, who’s immediately enamored because Clift’s a stone fox, but Richardson thinks he’s a gold digger. Clift’s interiority gets just as little reveal as de Havilland’s, which is important later on. Hopkins is on Clift’s side, which encourages de Havilland. For ninety minutes, Heiress is mostly about their courtship and its result. The last thirty isn’t epilogue but a complete readjustment of the narrative structure. The characters (and audience) thought the story was one thing, but it’s really another. Great work from Wyler on making that transition successful. Subtle and nimble.

Great performances from the four principals. The characters are constrained by “society” decorum, affecting options, decisions, reactions. Outside the box thinking is never an actual possibility so it’s never discussed but it’s considered and only in the actors’ expressions (or body language). Heiress is never a stagy play adaptation, but it’s still very much a stage adaptation. Wyler showcases the actors’ essaying of the roles, getting into the minutiae of the performances.

So they’ve got to be great.

And they are. de Havilland’s the best. She’s got an exceptionally difficult arc. Clift’s excellent, Richardson’s excellent, Hopkins is excellent. Even though it’s prime showcase for Clift, he doesn’t get the range of material as Richardson. And Hopkins gets all the subtly, because she’s all in on 1850s society thinking and she needs the world to make sense in those constraints.

Great photography from Tover, nice cutting from William Hornbeck; Harry Horner’s production design is key. And the Aaron Copland score is wonderful. Even if he didn’t really do all of it (Heiress had some behind-the-scenes turmoil). The screenplay, by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz (who also wrote the source play), is excellent. Wyler, obviously, does superb work.

The Heiress is outstanding.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz, based on their play and a novel by Henry James; director of photography, Leo Tover; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Aaron Copland; production designer, Harry Horner; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Sloper), Montgomery Clift (Morris Townsend), Ralph Richardson (Dr. Austin Sloper), Miriam Hopkins (Lavinia Penniman), Vanessa Brown (Maria), and Betty Linley (Mrs. Montgomery).



The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)

If it weren’t for the first half of the film, The Best Years of Our Lives would be a series of vingettes. The film runs almost three hours. Almost exactly the first half is set over two days. The remainder is set over a couple months. Director Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood don’t really do much summary in the second half. Subplots run through a series of the vingettes, never all of them–the film’s unequally but definitely split between its three male leads. Wyler and Sherwood reveal develops through attitude and dialogue. Time passes through Dana Andrews’s gradual resignation. Through Harold Russell’s depression. Alternately, I suppose, it also passes through Fredric March and Myrna Loy’s re-familiarization.

The film opens with Andrews, Russell, and March returning from World War II. Dashing Andrews was an Air Force captain, sailor Russell has lost his hands, older guy March was just an Army sergeant. The first ten minutes sets up the characters, their hometown (the fictional, vaguely midwestern Boone City), and the people waiting for them.

The first ten minutes establishes how much of the film is going to be on the actors’ faces. Watching real-life amputee Russell contend with the polite and not polite–among fellow servicemen–dominates. Whatever nervousness Andrews and March are experiencing, they’re always aware of what’s going on with Russell. And they aren’t comfortable. The bond between the three builds with that comfort, which Russell (and Sherwood and Wyler) determinedly demand. Much of the first half of the film is spent examining the three men; both for character development and just plain characters looking at each other. The men are strangers when the film begins, polite ones, but strangers.

Once they arrive home, it gets more complicated. Sure, the trio aren’t looking at each other, but they’re discovering the ground situation. Wyler and Sherwood lay it out for the audience and the characters. All the characters. Best Years focuses on the three men’s return home, but their supporting cast gets a lot of establishing and developing. March’s homecoming to wife Loy and children Teresa Wright and Michael Hall sets up two big subplots and sort of Loy’s character arc. Russell’s return suggests something similiar–he’s got a literal girl next door fiancée (Cathy O’Donnell) waiting for him–but it doesn’t end up being as big. Russell gets less screentime in the second half. The film always returns to him at just the right moment, when he’s been away too long.

He’s got the “simpliest” subplot–his depression and how it affects his relationship with O’Donnell. Andrews has got PTSD a rocky wartime marriage (to Virginia Mayo), and a flirtation with someone he shouldn’t be flirting with. March has got a drinking problem, a work problem (back banking for chickenhawk Ray Collins), as well as feeling uncomfortable at home.

Most of these details get introduced in the first half. Mayo shows up just at the end with some foreshadowing for turmoil, but nothing onscreen. Same goes for March’s work problems. Andrews and March get these subplots second half; Russell doesn’t.

It’s unfortunate but the film’s so good, it gets a pass on that one.

The first half also brings the characters back together. March drags Loy and Wright out on the town, running into Andrews and then Russell. They’re all at Hoagy Carmichael’s bar. Carmichael is great as Russell’s wise, piano-playing uncle. He defuses situations, which Andrews, March, and Russell frequently need.

Even if it’s just making Loy and Wright less annoyed. They–and the audience–don’t really understand the extent of March’s drinking at the start. Because Best Years is slow to reveal its subplots, slow to foreshadow. One of the reasons it can get away with giving Russell so much less (though his eighth billing isn’t okay) is because what it does give him is so good. Because Russell’s so good. Best Years of Our Lives is, spared down, about a bunch of people who really want to cry and never let themselves. Russell’s the only one who gets to go through that on screen.

Meanwhile, Andrews has to combat his stoicism. His arc is this complicated ego one, with the PTSD an undercurrent; along with the romantic troubles.

So Andrews and Russell have the toxic masculinity arcs. March doesn’t. His resignation and rediscovery arc is much quieter, far less dramatic, and awesome.

Because the film’s so long and goes into vignette, the actor giving the best performance isn’t always consistent. Overall, it’s probably March. But Russell. But Andrews. Supporting it’s easily Loy… though Wright and O’Donnell are both outstanding. Loy’s just got the least screentime for her own arc. She’s always supporting someone else’s. So watching her character develop, rarely in close-up, is special.

Because Sherwood and Wyler are great at maintaining and building on details through the subplots. Andrews and Russell, independently and then together, deal with some real homecoming nastiness (as well as general disinterest), but it’s in the March subplot where it dramatically culminates.

Such a good script. Sherwood’s pacing is phenomenal. Even when, for example, Russell’s subplot is almost overdue, the film hasn’t been dragging. Best Years of Our Lives never drags.

Wyler’s direction is precise, deliberate, patient. He’ll have silences–either filled with mundanely urban background or Hugo Friedhofer’s excellent score. He’ll have noisy–almost anywhere outside Carmichael’s bar and March’s apartment is packed with people. He’s nimble too. He’s got this over the shoulder shot he repeats a few times in the third act, with the divine Gregg Toland photography (there’s no other word). He doesn’t use the shot earlier. He does some similar things, at least with how he places the actors, but it’s this distinct stylistic thing he’s moving towards throughout.

The Toland photography is perfect.

It’d be the most jaw-dropping technical feature–and I suppose, really, it is because it’s the photography–but Daniel Mandell’s editing is a masterpiece of smooth, fluid, and emotively considerate cutting. The editing is exquisite, simultaneously bold and subtle.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a remarkable motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood, based on a novel by MacKinlay Kantor; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Samuel Goldwyn; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Al Stephenson), Dana Andrews (Fred Derry), Harold Russell (Homer Parrish), Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson), Teresa Wright (Peggy Stephenson), Virginia Mayo (Marie Derry), Cathy O’Donnell (Wilma Cameron), Hoagy Carmichael (Butch Engle), Marlene Aames (Luella Parrish), Gladys George (Hortense), Roman Bohnen (Pat Derry), Minna Gombell (Mrs. Parrish), Walter Baldwin (Mr. Parrish), Michael Hall (Rob Stephenson), and Ray Collins (Mr. Milton).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE FREE FOR ALL BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THERESA OF CINEMAVEN'S ESSAYS FROM THE COUCH.


RELATED

The Little Foxes (1941, William Wyler)

The most impressive things about The Little Foxes are, in no particular order, Bette Davis’s performance (specifically her micro expressions), Patricia Collinge’s supporting performance, director Wyler’s composition, director Wyler’s staging of the narrative (adapted by Lillian Hellman from her play and set in a constrained area but a living one), Herbert Marshall’s performance, and Gregg Toland’s photography. Actors Teresa Wright and Charles Dingle almost make the top list. They make up the second tier. Then you get into the other great supporting performances and things like Daniel Mandell’s editing or the set decoration and it goes on and on.

Because The Little Foxes is an expertly made film. The script is strong, Wyler’s got Gregg Toland shooting this thing, Wright’s character got hidden range (too hidden), and Davis can do this role. Davis and Wyler didn’t get along but the conflict never comes through because Davis’s character is supposed to be so against the grain. Bickering with the director through your performance is a great way to generate grain to move against.

Even though Wyler does a great job translating a play to the screen, the film skips a little too much. Wyler and Toland have this great foreground and background action thing going so they can get multiple things done at once (occasionally with middle ground action too). But it’s a device to keep Little Foxes lean. The first thirty-six minutes, taking place over a day, sings. Wyler gets done with it and it’s like the film is just starting. He’s introduced the cast, he’s introduced the setting. It’s laying the ground situation in action. It’s awesome.

And for a while it pays off and just keeps getting better. Little Foxes is about the machinations of a nouveau riche Southern family in 1900. Well, not quite riche enough but almost. Davis and brothers Dingle and Carl Benton Reid (in a sturdy but inglorious performance) have a plan, they just need Marshall–as Davis’s convalescing husband–to get on board. Only maybe Marshall thinks the family is awful. Foxes has some peculiar politics, with Marshall and Richard Carlson as progressives (and the only decent white men in the picture).

Collinge’s part in the film, reductively, is to forecast the possibilities for Wright’s future. Collinge does a great job with it and the scenes are beautifully written–her relationship with Wright in the first act is a standout both for acting and cinematic brevity–but she disappears in the third act. She’s got no place in the story, which is kind of a problem because the story was the family and then it just turns into this business deal thing.

It’s too abrupt, but Wyler’s able to make it at least flow a little thanks to Toland and Mandell’s contributions. There’s a throwaway scene in the third act where Carlson gets to slap around porto-bro Dan Duryea. Not to fault Duryea with that description, he’s awesome in the part. Lovably dopey and still somewhat dangerous. So Wyler gives the audience a reward for sticking through the mussed third act.

Even though the grand finale is part of that mussing, Davis and Wright really bring it together and make it work long enough for Wyler and Toland to finish the movie. Dingle and Marshall also go far in making it happen, but it’s Davis and Wright. It’s got to be the mother and daughter showdown, even though the film never exactly promised such a thing. And you get to see Wright develop her character without an inch from Davis. Is it an inch in character or out? Doesn’t matter, makes their scenes beyond tense. Maybe because Davis wasn’t in the second act much. The Little Foxes, with Marshall, Wright, Carlson, Collinge, and Jessica Grayson just sitting around enjoying each other’s company in one scene, becomes almost genial. Wyler doesn’t promise happiness, but he does acknowledge people actually enjoy life.

Davis has to come back with a vengeance to remind the audience there is no happiness, no enjoyment. Because the world’s a bad place. It’s actually a really downbeat ending even though everyone kind of gets a happy ending. Characters win, humanity loses.

Foxes has got some problems–it’s too short as it turns out–but Wyler and company turn in an excellent picture. Confident, beautifully shot, beautifully acted, well-paced. But in that confidence is a lot of safety. Wyler’s most ambitious with his composition, not the film overall.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Arthur Kober, Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, and Lillian Hellman, based on the play by Hellman; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Meredith Willson; produced by Samuel Goldwyn; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Bette Davis (Regina Giddens), Teresa Wright (Alexandra Giddens), Herbert Marshall (Horace Giddens), Charles Dingle (Ben Hubbard), Patricia Collinge (Birdie Hubbard), Jessica Grayson (Addie), Carl Benton Reid (Oscar Hubbard), Dan Duryea (Leo Hubbard), Richard Carlson (David Hewitt), John Marriott (Cal), and Russell Hicks (William Marshall).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE SECOND ANNUAL BETTE DAVIS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


RELATED