A lush, vibrant film about Cuban musicians struggling to maintain love as their careers pull them apart, Chico and Rita hits two buttons for me. Firstly, I love the animation style, which employs simple broad lines to describe human motion. The eloquence of line is one of this film’s great successes, not just in depicting its characters but also in rendering dazzling cityscapes of Havana, New York, Hollywood, Paris and Las Vegas. Secondly, it’s a film about jazz that speaks not just to the history of the music, but also to the way it has been portrayed previously onscreen.
The plot is very familiar. A feckless jazz musician falls in love with a talented singer. Their romance is fuelled by a fulfilling stage partnership. However, personal and professional jealousies tear them apart. The jazz musician languishes self-pityingly, as his ex-lover’s star rises. After many years, they meet once more. The film ends on a bittersweet note, the happiness of their reunion tempered by the loss of youthful passion. I could be describing Scorsese’s New York New York.
The film sometimes fails to play interesting changes on this old familiar song. I found myself struggling through the opening sequences, where the first attraction between Chico and Rita was written so broadly that it was hard to care what was happening. Luckily, things really pick up in the middle section, when the action moves to New York.
In jazz films, NY is often the Bad Place, where pushers get you high and cops beat on you (see ‘Round Midnight and Bird). It’s nice, then, that Chico and Rita is eager to convey the excitement of the city, and the buzz felt by our Cuban protagonists as they explore the emergent bebop scene. There are some lovely “cameos” from Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Ben Webster and Thelonious Monk (and, elsewhere in the film, Chucho Valdes, Tito Puente, Chano Pozo, Nat King Cole and Marlon Brando). These appearances by famous men are brief, and all the better for that. There’s none of the hand-wringing reverence that mars Bird.
I loved the sequences set in Paris. Seeing Diz and Chico play Caveau de la Huchette was a thrill, as it’s a joint that Dolly Clackett and I have danced in. And there’s a nice touch as Chico queues at the cinema, a poster for Vertigo reminding us of the Hitchcocko-Hawksians cinephiles of the Left Bank.
The movie comes apart a little towards the end, as it shifts focus from Rita to Chico’s Buena Vista Social Club-style rediscovery. By privileging one protagonist over the other in this way, there’s a sense of over-balancing. The admirable delicacy of emotion maintained so far gives way to coarse sentimentality, at its worse in an extraneous final montage.
These problems of narrative aside, Chico and Rita is one of the most interesting and successful of jazz films. The music itself is gorgeous, beautifully integrated into the action, gently leading us through the lives of its players. There’s even a dream ballet featuring Fred Astaire and Humphrey Bogart (!), reminiscent of Gene Kelly’s choreographed interludes in Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris. The love and craft that has gone into this film radiates, staying with you long after the lights have gone up.
A little while ago, the nice folks at Silkworms Ink asked me to write a series of short essays on film. It was a really enjoyable exercise, allowing me to make a few intuitive leaps that I wouldn’t normally allow myself in my academic writing. And where else would I get the chance to discuss the Lumiere Brothers, Wyatt Earp, Tony Curtis, John Ford, Laurel and Hardy, Hitchcock and Sex and the City 2?
While maintaining a variety of subject, I also wanted to keep each piece within 500 words. Perhaps some of them could have used a bit more space to breathe, but I wanted these essays to be a stimulus to thought rather than a complete argument. Evocative rather than prescriptive.
Many thanks to Silkworms’ editor James Harringman for giving me the opportunity, and for illustrating the posts so beautifully. Here are the links:
Billy Wilder had a theory about everything and, like so many of the great directors, he was also a great raconteur. Just before he died, a book of his conversations with Cameron Crowe was published. It’s no accident that so many wonderful film books are structured in this way (I’m thinking of Truffaut’s dialogues with Hitchcock and Bogdanovich’s with Welles). Conversations with Wilder is a book I treasure, full of technical insight and bitchy gossip about old Hollywood. It has personal significance too, since I bought it with a book voucher from my secondary school before I went off to university to study film!
Wilder had a long and fascinating career, as both a writer and director. Ninotchka, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes… these are all films I’ve returned to with pleasure again and again. In fact, Wilder was so prolific that there’s many more I’ve yet to see. Given my love of Kirk Douglas, I’m especially looking forward to Ace in the Hole!
In the back of the Crowe book of conversations, Wilder lists his advice to budding writers. I’ve had a photocopy blue-tacked next to my desk for years.
WILDER’S TIPS TO WRITERS
1. The audience is fickle.
2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
4. Know where you’re going.
5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they are seeing.
9. The event that occurs at the second-act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then -
11. – that’s it. Don’t hang around.
Still, don’t worry if you have trouble keeping to Wilder’s rules. Nobody’s perfect!
After enjoying Pursuit to Algiers so much last week (read my review here), Dolly Clackett and I picked out another film from the Rathbone and Bruce box set last night. Like its predecessor, Terror by Night takes place over the course of a journey, this time on an express train to Edinburgh.
- As you can see from the rather magnificent poster above, the case concerns a precious stone, the Star of Rhodesia, that Holmes must guard. Once his client is murdered and the jewel stolen, Holmes must discover which of the train’s passengers is guilty.
- Drawing on Conan Doyle’s The Blue Carbuncle, the film begins with a voiceover explaining that the jewel has brought death to all who have owned it. Later, Holmes finds that the murderer has been hiding in a coffin with a secret compartment, a twist on The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax.
- As in Pursuit to Algiers, there are no Baker Street scenes in this film. This means we miss out again on one of the series’ treasures, Mary Gordon as Mrs. Hudson. This time round, though, we do have the pleasure of Dennis Hoey’s wonderfully slow-witted Inspector Lestrade.
- A lot of attention is paid to the glamourous character Vivian Vedder. She’s one of the film’s most persistent red herrings – as shown by the undue prominence given her on the film poster. Vivian is supposed to be a Cockney but actress Renee Godfrey (born in New York) can’t manage the accent. A merciless mangling ensues.
- There’s some fun stuff with Nigel Bruce attempting to solve the case on his own and suspecting all of the wrong people.
- One of the reasons that I love thrillers set on trains is for the always exciting situation of characters falling out of trains or climbing along roofs. See Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Anthony Mann’s The Tall Target (1951) for a couple of fine examples. A particular highlight of Terror by Night is its version of the hero-fighting-not-to-get-kicked-off-the-train trope. An unidentified assailant furiously lashes out at Holmes, hanging on for dear life with only one hand. Rathbone looks wonderfully strained in this scene as his head falls back, dangerously close to the tracks. A triumph of back projection.
- It’s a shame that the distinctive Skelton Knaggs doesn’t have more screen time. He’s very sinister!
- This is the only Rathbone film to feature Colonel Sebastian Moran, henchman of the late Professor Moriarty, his infamous airgun updated to a streamlined “airpistol”. His identity is concealed for most of the film, so I don’t want to give too much away!
- Unlike Holmesian scholars David Stuart Davies and Alan Barnes, I think Pursuit to Algiers has just got the edge on Terror by Night. Still, this film is another enjoyable entry and far better than I remembered. No doubt the restored prints have a great deal to do with my increased enjoyment!
- One of my favourite aspects of the Universal Sherlock Holmes films is the rousing speech that Rathbone delivers at the film’s conclusion. Sadly, neither Pursuit to Algiers nor Terror by Night end in this way. Perhaps the studio felt it was unnecessary with the war over. It’s a shame; those moments between the two friends ended the films satisfyingly, and were always beautifully delivered by Rathbone. Perhaps, then, my next selection from the box set will be a wartime Holmes!
Over at Killer Covers, there’s an insightful post by J. Kingston Pierce on pulp paperback art. Do go over and read it here.
Pierce interviews Charles Ardai, Max Allan Collins and David Saunders. Their consensus is that by the 1970s, the trend for cheaper photographic art had forced pulp cover artists toward Hollywood and advertising. This struck a chord with me. Time has passed. Living next to a cinema means I’m depressed daily by the Photoshopped eyesores that now pass for movie posters.
Since reading that post, I’ve been mulling the subject over. Do I find photographic covers inherently less interesting? Is this unwarranted prejudice or a simple matter of aesthetic preference?
With this in mind, let’s look at another Ross Macdonald cover. My first post in this series depicted two painted covers, partly because I thought they were unusual and visually more stimulating. However, my second post showed the movie tie-in for The Drowning Pool, a lazy job of design (publicity still reproduction) but meaningful to me because of the quality of Archer-ness in Paul Newman’s face.
My subject today is a different kettle of fish altogether. Yes, it’s a photographic cover, and it’s an eccentric image.
I think my first response to this cover was amusement. The forced perspective makes the corpse’s feet seem comically enlarged. Ditto the baldness of that protruding dagger. However, the more I look at it, this image unsettles me. Its gallows humour, perhaps consciously, recalls this still from Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry.
In each case, the corpse is dehumanized, a figure of fun. And perhaps this is why the cover seems so inappropriate for this novel. As Fred Zackel recalls here, Ross Macdonald was of the opinion that, “The detective isn’t your main character, and neither is your villain. The main character is the corpse. The detective’s job is to seek justice for the corpse. It’s the corpse’s story, first and foremost.”
Despite its incompatibility with the book’s contents, I’m happy to have kept this copy in my collection. That curious blend of macabre humour and genuine creepiness is very striking!