Tag Archives: Ben Hecht

Notorious (1946, Alfred Hitchcock)

In the third act of Notorious, director Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht (who had some uncredited and quite exquisite help) figure out a way to get maximal drama out of a rather mundane situation. Well, mundane as far as the possibilities of American agents in Rio de Janeiro (with the permission of the government) trying to root out Nazi moneymen after the war. And as mundane as is possible when Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant are the American agents. When they’re glamourous and star-crossed lovers. Mundane for all those conditions.

Because a big action sequence wouldn’t be out of place in Notorious. It’s a spy thriller, with a naif (Bergman) as the main spy and a debonair Grant as her handler. Claude Rains is the villain, though he’s a somewhat benign one. Even when he’s most dangerous, Rains is always pitiful. He’s a mama’s boy—singular performance from Leopoldine Konstantin as the mom—and he used to know Bergman’s dad. During the War, when they were traitors; Bergman’s dad got busted (leading to Grant finding some leverage to get her to help), Rains ran away to Rio. Grant needs Bergman to help not just because her dad gives her cred with the Nazis… but because Rains had the hots for her. It’s not illegal inappropriate—she would’ve been late twenties, he would’ve been late forties—or even exceptionally (and definitely not for a movie). Bergman did not reciprocate.

It should be the perfect assignment, particularly for Bergman because—the agency has decided—she’s already lost her virtue so why not do for Uncle Sam. Grant’s boss, an outstanding Louis Calhern, sees Bergman as an asset and can’t figure out why Grant doesn’t do the same. Though Calhern also doesn’t want to ask. Meanwhile, it’s not the perfect assignment for Bergman or Grant because the two of them managed to fall in love even though Grant’s kind of a dick and Bergman’s got a serious drinking problem. But Notorious makes it all work. The writing, the acting, Hitchcock’s glorious, glamorous close-up heavy direction, plus the photography—Ted Tetzlaff—the music—Roy Webb—and especially Theron Warth’s editing. Warth’s cutting is what makes Notorious thrilling. Warth’s cutting, Hitchcock’s directing, Bergman’s acting.

Notorious runs just over a hundred minutes and at least the entire first act and a chunk of the second is all just a close examination of Bergman as she goes through this momentous life change. She’s gone from shamed public enemy to secret agent to potential secret agent power couple. Notorious doesn’t just pull off its plot—charming espionage thriller—it’s got the whole romance thing going too. Grant wants Bergman to say no the assignment, Bergman wants Grant to tell her she can’t do it, but he’s a dick about it because it’s his job and it’s duty before love and all whereas Bergman—who the film establishes magnificently in the first few scenes, thanks to Hecht’s writing and Bergman’s awesome deliver of the dialogue—just wants Grant to acknowledge her as a person and not some stereotype. Now, while Grant’s debonair and all and definitely Cary Grant levels of attractive, he’s also a socially awkward goof. Not a lot, but just a bit. Enough he’s bad with people in general, more ladies, and Bergman specifically.

With barely a handful of Grant moments, Notorious is a spotlight on Bergman for the first forty-five or so minutes. Once Bergman gets to Rains’s house and gets to meet everyone—all his Nazi pals, mom Konstantin, of course, and then butler Alexis Minotis (who’s peculiar in just the right way, though it seems entirely coincidental—like, Minotis will glance at the camera, which the film is able to get away with thanks to Hitchcock’s establishing it elsewhere—but anyway, after the film gets to the house it pretty much doesn’t leave and Hitchcock and Hecht adjust the narrative distance to Bergman and how the film tracks her narrative.

At this point, Notorious starts to feel a little different. Then a lot different. Then when Hitchcock synthesizes the styles in the third act, it feels like it’s been longer (partially because the film skips ahead quite at least twice in the second act, which works well in maintaining tension). But there’s no rushing on the second act of the second act part of Notorious; Bergman gets a great arc. Rains gets a great arc. Grant gets to continue his arc, which has him mostly fretting in the backgrounds—often literally—as he becomes so frustrated with the situation and, eventually, himself. Bergman’s performance, particularly in the first act, is amazing. No question about it, the stuff she does it doesn’t seem like anyone else could ever do. Just spectacular, one of a kind stuff. Grant’s background stuff is a lot less superlative (it’s more like he just realized playing the whole part comedically just without any big jokes was the way to do it), but it’s one of Notorious’s many treasures.

It’s an outstanding film. Hitchcock’s direction is inventive, measured, ambitious, enthused. Outstanding script. Wonderful performances from Bergman and Grant. The film’s an obvious technical masterpiece but still has a buzz of Hollywood magic to it. Notorious is—quite obviously at this point in time—one of a kind. In the best ways.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; written by Ben Hecht; director of photography, Ted Tetzlaff; edited by Theron Warth; music by Roy Webb; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Cary Grant (Devlin), Ingrid Bergman (Alicia Huberman), Claude Rains (Alexander Sebastian), Leopoldine Konstantin (Mme. Sebastian), Louis Calhern (Paul Prescott), Alexis Minotis (Joseph), Reinhold Schünzel (Dr. Anderson), and Ivan Triesault (Eric Mathis).


Twentieth Century (1934, Howard Hawks)

Even with its way too abrupt finish, Twentieth Century is rare delight. Would it be more successful if the ending hadn’t wasted Carole Lombard? Yes, but also because it would’ve given lead John Barrymore more Lombard to act opposite and Barrymore’s best opposite Lombard. He’s amazing the whole time, but he’s best working with her. He aggravates him in just the right way. And, after time, she aggravates him in just the right way, which certainly hints at an amazing finish.

Sadly, no. Screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur kind of choke on it, though no doubt some of the fault lies with director (and producer) Hawks.

Anyway. Done with the negative verbiage. On to the reverse.

The film opens with a stage production doing a rehearsal; it’s model Lombard’s first attempt at acting. The director, Charles Lane, and the theatre accountant, Walter Connolly, don’t think much of her. They think boss and Broadway wunderkind Barrymore just hired her because of her looks. Just before Barrymore arrives on stage to take over the film introduces Roscoe Karns as Barrymore’s drunkard newspaper stooge, who’s there to profile Lombard. For about ten minutes, it’s just Barrymore going nuts directing Lombard through the rehearsal. He’s mean (though not cruel), manipulative, rude, and utterly hilarious. Barrymore gnaws at the scene, practically snapping at the air over Lombard’s shoulders. The scene starts with them apart, ends with them intwined, Hawks and editor Gene Havlick really focusing on how the two actors pace off the other. The air is thick with chemistry.

Even if Lombard doesn’t quite realize it yet.

Because Barrymore’s not just interested in creating a successful contract player in Lombard, he’s looking for love. The “seduction” scene is where Barrymore goes from being a hilarious tyrant to a personable, hilarious tyrant. The film has three time frames. The first opens the film; Lombard and Barrymore getting together, realizing greater success because of their collaborations. Then three years later when things have hit the skids. Then another three years later, post-skids, with one far more successful than the other. That last part is the majority of the film. It’s also where the title comes in—they’re on the 20th Century Limited, on the way from Chicago to New York. The first two phases have a lot of Lombard and Barrymore together. There’s some more character establishing with the supporting cast, Connolly and Karns in particular, as they’re going to be very important in the third phase, but it’s all about Lombard and Barrymore. Second phase is mostly more about Lombard. It’s where she’s got to show all the changes in her character over the last three years; what being around Barrymore will do to an intimate partner as well as creative partner. It’s where Lombard gets to let loose almost as much as Barrymore.

Whenever the film’s Lombard or Barrymore, it’s that rare delight. Barrymore manages to get more eccentric by the third phase, set almost entirely on train, while Lombard finally gets to match him. Much of the film is spent either laughing or grinning while preparing to laugh again. Hecht and MacArthur’s script does a fantastic job building up jokes, particularly in the third section, particularly with troublesome train passenger Etienne Girardot. Girardot is a great C plot, which ties into the A plot, but also provides some real texture to the train. He gives the supporting cast something to focus on, giving them their own story arcs. The film is always bustling, as sometimes Lombard and Barrymore need to take a break. They’re both very busy; in character and performance.

Connolly and Karns get a bunch more to do in the third phase, as they’re trying to save Barrymore from himself, which means intruding on Lombard, who’s got her own things going on with fresh beau and stuffed shirt Ralph Forbes. At some point in the second half, it almost feels like Connolly and Karns’s movie. It doesn’t last for long, as they have to involve Barrymore in their activities, but then it becomes the Barrymore, Connolly, and Karns show. Lombard gets downgraded.

Just as the film finally starts remedying Lombard’s reduced station and bringing her back up, giving her some great scenes with Barrymore, the movie stops. Maybe Hecht and MacArthur ran out of ideas to give Barrymore and Lombard something to riff on, but the film needs just a little more. Five minutes maximum. It’s not like Lombard or Barrymore give any signs of slowing, even as Connolly and Karns are literally passing out by this time.

But it’s a magnificent ride to that abrupt finish. And it works, it just doesn’t transcend.

Good editing from Havlick, good photography from Joseph H. August, excellent direction from Hawks. Barrymore and Lombard are wondrous. Twentieth Century is awesome.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Howard Hawks; screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, based on a play by Charles Bruce Millholland; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by Gene Havlick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring John Barrymore (Oscar Jaffe), Carole Lombard (Mildred Plotka), Walter Connolly (Oliver Webb), Roscoe Karns (Owen O’Malley), Ralph Forbes (George Smith), Charles Lane (Max Jacobs), and Etienne Girardot (Matthew J. Clark).



Nothing Sacred (1937, William A. Wellman)

Nothing Sacred is an idea in search of a script. It’s a little surprisingly they went forward with Ben Hecht’s script, which plays like he wrote it on a bunch of napkins and left director Wellman to piece together a narrative.

Fredric March–who has shockingly little to do in the film–is a newspaper reporter who may or may not have tried to defraud the wealthy of New York with a fake sultan and a donation project. Hecht’s script reveals so little about March, it doesn’t even make that determination. His editor, Walter Connolly, sends him off to investigate a dying girl, played by Carole Lombard.

Turns out Lombard’s not dying and deceives March for a trip to New York. She brings along Charles Winninger as her drunken doctor.

Hilarity does not ensue in New York City. Neither do big comic set pieces. A lot of Sacred feels like Wellman trying to justify the Technicolor expense and not knowing how to do so–he shoots the film almost entirely in medium long shot, with occasional closeups and then he blocks parts of shots for emphasis. It’s strange.

Lombard is wonderful in her role. The script doesn’t give her anything to do–the film runs less than eighty minutes, it might just be there isn’t enough time. March’s okay, but on the shallow end of it. Connolly is wonderful. Winninger is not.

The entire film feels truncated and too small for its concept. Instead of making it feel grandiose, the Technicolor instead makes it feel cramped.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Ben Hecht, based on a story by James H. Street; director of photography, W. Howard Greene; edited by James E. Newcom; music by Oscar Levant; produced by David O. Selznick; released by United Artists.

Starring Carole Lombard (Hazel Flagg), Fredric March (Wally Cook), Charles Winninger (Dr. Enoch Downer), Walter Connolly (Oliver Stone), Sig Ruman (Dr. Emil Eggelhoffer) and Troy Brown Sr. (Ernest Walker).


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Design for Living (1933, Ernst Lubitsch)

From the first third of Design for Living, it’s impossible to think it might not be absolutely fantastic throughout. Eventually it does hit a dry period and it’s impossible to think it’s going to pull out of it. Then it does and it’s impossible to think… well, you get the idea. I don’t know why I wasn’t fully trusting of Lubitsch, but during that dry spell, I really did think he’d lost control of the film.

The problem he–and the characters–needs to work out is a familiar one, the love triangle, but here with the added complication of the two male legs being best friends. I’m not sure how much of the solution Lubitsch got from Noel Coward’s source play (Ben Hecht’s adaptation only retained one line of dialogue and I can’t find any information on the plotting), but Lubitsch’s resolution is perfect. The film’s already over its bumpy period and it’s already assured he’s going to end it well, but the way he does is even better than expected.

The bumpy period–which probably only lasts fifteen minutes, at most, of the film’s ninety minute running time–is distinct because of what it lacks. The film opens with Miriam Hopkins sitting down across from Gary Cooper and Fredric March. The opening minutes are silent, followed by a minute of Cooper and Hopkins speaking French, then it’s the trio full steam. They all play perfectly off each other, so when the film’s without them–when it’s just March or just Cooper–it doesn’t work right. Hopkins works great with both of them, but they don’t work quite so well when they aren’t together. In fact, there’s a whole scene emphasizing that point.

Seeing Cooper and March–two leading men–sharing a film like this one, complimenting each other so well, it’s hard to believe they never reunited. The film only spends thirty seconds establishing the friendship–silently no less–between the two. While March went on to do a lot of comedies, Cooper only did them in his (relatively) early career, at least playing up his abilities as a physical comedian. Both of them are superb; hearing them fire Hecht’s dialogue back and forth is joyous.

What’s so frustrating about not knowing how Hecht’s adaptation works is in terms of discussing the scene structure. If I didn’t know the film came from a play, had I missed the opening titles, I might have guessed it. The scenes have a lot of dialogue and a lack of mobility–even if it’s a multi-room setting, the action takes place in the same areas. But then there are other touches–Lubitsch communicating the passage of time with an advertisement on a bus, for example–which are entirely filmic.

The handling of Edward Everett Horton’s character, a ludicrous suitor for Hopkins, is also rather filmic. Horton manages the film’s second most difficult performance (Hopkins having the first, having to convey her conflicted feelings for both Cooper and March in a constantly fresh way); Horton has to both be believable and absurd. The film makes a few drastic changes to the character to keep him in line for the narrative to work and Horton negotiates them well. He’s an amusing, antagonistic buffoon.

The film’s such a success, I’m a little surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. Between the performances–the pairing of Cooper and March and Hopkins in general–Lubitsch’s sublime direction (that opening is masterful), and Hecht’s script… Design for Living should be much better known.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch; screenplay by Ben Hecht, based on the play by Noel Coward; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Frances Marsh; music by John Leipold; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Tom Chambers), Gary Cooper (George Curtis), Miriam Hopkins (Gilda Farrell), Edward Everett Horton (Max Plunkett), Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Douglas), Isabel Jewell (Plunkett’s Stenographer), Jane Darwell (Curtis’s Housekeeper) and Wyndham Standing (Max’s Butler).


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