Counsellor at Law
A big Jewish lawyer, biggest in New York, a suite of offices in the Empire State Building with his law partner, righting wrongs, doing good and making a profit, up against a Mayflower blueblood who wants him disbarred for a mitzvah on the shady side of the law.
The pilgrim has a mistress and son in Germantown, Pa.
And so accounts are squared.
The society wife sails for Europe with a prospective lover, a devoted secretary fills the bill.
Rice’s masterpiece, filmed in 1933 with great élan and savoir-faire.
Themes run through all of Wyler’s films and back again.
The Good Fairy
A sublime comedy by Preston Sturges out of Ferenc Molnar, distantly related to The Palm Beach Story.
Somewhere between Ronald Colman and Ralph Richardson is Herbert Marshall in this part. Margaret Sullavan is echoed by Carol Burnett in “Cavender Is Coming” on The Twilight Zone (dir. Christian Nyby).
“Well, there’s many a cup ‘twixt the slip and the, whatever it is.”
The reverberations extend from De Sica’s Teresa Venerdi to Robert Ellis Miller’s Any Wednesday and everywhere in between (cf. Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste).
Wyler is a famous admirer of Lubitsch, not without reason.
“But when I’m not full of it, I behave differently.”
Brand-new headlights made by Zeiss are part of the picture.
“But I told you that he only wanted to marry me.”
“Oh, that was old when... Jonah ate the whale.”
“What is this?”
“I can explain everything.”
“Nobody asked you!”
Andre Sennwald of the New York Times missed it as “the perfect fantastic comedy which it might have been.”
“A somewhat vociferous paraphrase,” said Variety in agreement.
“Unusual,” says Halliwell’s Film Guide, “rather lumpy”.
The Big Lie that pivots on blackmail (and ends in Vienna) is precisely how Brecht came to describe the tyranny of Hitler in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Wyler’s film was made two years before the Anschluß.
A film praised by critics in the New York Times (Frank S. Nugent), Variety, and Time Out Film Guide (Tom Milne), but not Halliwell’s Film Guide (“now seems dated”).
At Zenith, in the Midwest, he sells Dodsworth Motor Company to please his younger wife, who has a penchant for Old World sophistication, a time there was before a time there was. They part company on this point, and he settles down with an expatriate widow in Italy to plan a worldwide network of aviation.
The infinite subtleties of this are further worked out in Dead End, The Heiress, Carrie, and Roman Holiday, to name a few.
All New York streets end at a river, crooks rise out of the slums in towers that sequester rich younglings at a price. That’s a racket foiled by honesty and hard work that treat the laboratory of crime to an insight of justice.
The set is a short city block as described, fulsomely constructed with background plates for the river view, designed for maximum use by Wyler and Toland.
The perfect construction of the screenplay is the mirror of this, “Baby Face” Martin is supposed to be out West, he’s had plastic surgery and is back on the East Side to meet his roots. The West Side has gone East in new apartment towers that overlook the river and the slums.
The entire film moves from this point, the drama is an evocation of the crisis depicted even in Boorman’s The Tailor of Panama with its “cocaine towers”, the building racket ubiquitous in a social split founded on crime, the whole bastardly megillah set up and laid bare right down the line.
The Civil War or War Between the States, or The North Sees Red, or Miss Lily Langtry in The Blue & The Grey.
The very young Godard’s remark about Wyler’s “severities” makes this a theater of cruelty by comparison.
Perhaps it is possible to make out of this a reading of the South, though it may not be engineered that way, which is why it has given rise to many misunderstandings.
Leaving aside also the Biblical movement, this is how Wyler did it, let us say. He has a play, which John Huston helped to adapt, and some soundstages and a backlot, or else he starts in the studio and wants to see something. Artifice is the trademark of the artist, and let’s just say he neutralizes the mickey of it consciously, leaving nothing but the camera eye which is himself, peering gallantly at the bravest bunch of actors you and he have ever seen, in sets more carefully tended than any before Kubrick. This is what accounts for the rapidity of deployment and also the density of each shot’s structure at the same time, in nearly incalculable cascades of nuance that now are brought to a head and now allowed to dissipate like musical tones being struck.
And, being built from the ground up, this Hollywood backlot offers you the South itself. The precision here is neither in the camerawork nor in the editing, though both are exact, but in each shot as drama. Ninety takes are none too many. Chaplin sometimes took more, sometimes less.
There is an echo of The Three Sisters and an anticipation of El Ángel exterminador.
The misunderstandings. “Good femme film” (Variety). “Without the zing Davis gave it, it would have looked very mossy indeed” (Pauline Kael, The New Yorker).
Variety would have rewritten the script, “this just misses sock proportions,” it would have preferred a Gone with the Wind ending.
The title character is “socially and sexually transgressive” in Time Out Film Guide.
Halliwell’s Film Guide simplifies matters greatly, “superb star melodrama... dealt with in high style”.
Wyler’s monumental erotic masterpiece takes its form from its English settings, ancient Yorkshire, Rome and industrial Liverpool, all of which are visible in Brontë’s scenes on the moors.
A limb of Satan is snatched from the mills and deposited at the jovial house, Penistone Crag is discovered, the great house nearby has a classic allure, and all the machinations but serve to expose the real condition of life for which the strata of history are meaningless.
Variety thought this was gloomy, but Nugent of the New York Times seems to have grasped it. Even the shell-like ornamentation above the window at Thrushcross Grange affords a view of the dapple-point crag on the top of the hill and its lower shadows.
The dramatic consequences of so much misunderstanding again give rise to cruelties far beyond the more refined “severities” noted by Godard, and cause Sarris to speak of “misanthropy” and “lack of feeling”, when it is a question of Edgar Linton’s whole life collapsing at his feet, for example, and the extreme discretion of Wyler’s treatment, a surfeit of feeling and something more than pity.
The astounding speed at which Wyler organizes his shots, combined with his meticulousness of preparation, constitute a style very much like early Hitchcock’s in the one way, that each shot brings more to the film than can be apperceived all at once, and every shot repays study.
Wuthering Heights is a highly influential film, there are those who have taken note of it. Two boudoir scenes come strikingly to mind, Isabella’s prefiguring Big Mama on “the marriage bed” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Cathy’s at the climax when Heathcliff approaches profil perdu as in Scarlet Street.
The holy terror of this film brings on Wyler’s archetypal character, the man of reason who, in this instance, is ultimately forced to act, but later becomes “refined” almost but not quite “out of existence.”
The mirror of analysis is Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, in the vast stretches of great comedy, the doubling (Wyler’s Hannah is gradually identified with the Jersey Lily), and the direct consequences of the problem so perceived.
Nothing of this was evident to critics at the time, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was broadly puzzled, “no core” was his pronouncement, Variety blamed “a not too impressive script.”
“Minor divertissement” (Time Out Film Guide).
“Moody melodramatic western with comedy touches,” Halliwell’s Film Guide says, “generally entertaining, the villain more so than the hero.”
The Chinese proposition, comically realized at the phase of the war in which Japanese victories slaughter the place.
The enormously attentive soundtrack and the monstrous workings of the cinematography are constantly observable.
Perfection in the cinema is something that is inessential, like sharp focus according to Stieglitz. Hathaway has it, Ozu has it. Losey devoted himself to it, Ford and Welles could do without it. Wyler’s approach is similar to Chaplin’s. There’s no lack of spontaneous invention, you have to have that, but some things that take time, effort, and money to achieve, like that lamp or wind sculpture, won’t earn you any nicknames like Speedy or One-Take.
Thanks to Max Steiner, The Letter is an opera, or anyway an object lesson in how to film one. He follows the graduated examples Wyler provides, and encapsulates the music that would accompany them. Davis unburdening herself elastically is an aria or a cabaletta springing back on Marshall in torments. Stephenson’s summation is a basso aria full of starts and reflections. The ending is borrowed, beautifully, from Salome by Richard Strauss.
The Little Foxes
The play is thought by some to creak, just when it’s come into its own. The film had been thought a tale of human horrors, but it is a compendium of high-toned rats with a Biblical surname.
They have swept in and devoured the leavings of war, meaningless to them and insufficient. They’ll take over the country one day, we are warned.
Wyler has Gregg Toland off the Citizen Kane set for work that is astonishingly similar, and though Bosley Crowther complained of mirror-work he found “pretentious”, not at all. The colored retainer who extinguishes the candles in a mirror for Regina does his duty, nothing more. Leo Hubbard’s face (and Crowther altogether missed Dan Duryea’s performance) across the brass plaque of The Planters Trust Company tells the tale as well as anything.
Wyler’s penchant for Cézanne perspectives in interior shots is a function of his script analysis, he also has a great facility with extensions of the two-shot into a quartet, as here.
Two nonsensical statements about Wyler and Mrs. Miniver exhibit the insufferable limitations of the critical instinct unsupported by critical analysis. Professor Sarris in 1963 says, “Wyler’s career is a cipher as far as personal direction is concerned. It would seem that Wyler’s admirers have long mistaken a lack of feeling for emotional restraint.” Thus, for Sarris, there is in Wyler “less than meets the eye.”
Halliwell’s Film Guide (1984) has, “this is the rose-strewn English village, Hollywood variety, but when released it proved a beacon of morale despite its false sentiment, absurd rural types and melodramatic situations. It is therefore beyond criticism, except that some of the people involved should have known better.”
There is hardly a director more personal than Wyler, a hundred touches of his zesty art endow this film with great vividness and life. Furthermore, the reserves of feeling are brought to expression in many ways that are perhaps subtle enough for the finest critic, but by no means able to be overlooked by anyone. Finally, the implication that Wyler’s depiction of England is inaccurate cannot be borne out by the evidence of English films of the time and later.
It seems very much as if Halliwell has responded to the perceived criticism of England he finds in the script, without penetrating to the real substance of the film. Lady Beldon is not the villainess of the piece, nor does she lose a daughter, though she does gain a son. Carol Beldon’s death after her Scottish honeymoon is an artistic trick like Desdemona’s, l’amour est la mort, and for Lady Beldon the middle class is an underworld.
The same failure of analysis gives rise to Sarris’s remark, with the added failure merely to observe the emotional content in Wyler’s cinematic treatment. Again, there are a hundred examples of this in Mrs. Miniver.
It opens in the London of fast drivers and witty folk. Mrs. Miniver’s hat and Mr. Miniver’s open roadster were sufficiently analyzed on I Love Lucy. It remains to be said that Wyler wants to establish the careless immediacy of this world because he is emotionally attached to it, and that is all there is to be said about it, except that you will note a certain carelessness in Wyler’s handling remarkably similar to Hitchcock at the beginning of Rebecca.
The domestic vision here is instantly recognizable as the foundation of It’s a Wonderful Life (Henry Travers is of course in both films). “There’ll always be roses,” says Ballard the stationmaster as he rings the changes in the church belfry, then removes his hat from the carving of a saint, after which Wyler dissolves to the tomb of a knight carved in effigy, and dissolves again to the church service at which the announcement is made that war has been declared. Here one could pause or even abandon the charge leveled by Sarris, but what follows shows that Wyler is not superficial and unemotional but complex and emotionally articulate in the highest degree. After the announcement, he places the camera on a row of parishioners as they all sing a hymn. A woman on the right gives the meaning of war as she drops her head forward onto her hand and weeps, attended by her husband. Wyler immediately goes to the scene with Gladys the maid serving dinner between sobs for her Horace, who has enlisted. Little Toby laughs at her, Horace arrives, Toby mimics throat-slashing at him, Gladys and Horace go off (she closes the door with her foot behind them), etc.
The casting is careful and artistic to the same degree as everything else before the camera rolls, notably the set decoration and lighting, which are not only a work of art in themselves but necessary dramatic elements. Wyler films the Minivers coming home from that church service with the camera looking out through the front window of an empty house, a brief shot that establishes the sense of atmosphere needed to prepare the bomb damage later.
Fellini paid homage to the Dunkirk scene in Amarcord. Is it necessary to point out the musical vigor of Wyler’s long shots of the small boats swelling in numbers and resolution? This is where the precision of Wyler’s involvement is harsh and irreplaceable and, though seen at a remove for artistic discretion’s sake, hardly to be missed given the length of time required for the effect.
Before the German pilot in Mrs. Miniver’s kitchen demonstrates Wyler’s capacity for doing the business of cinema, there is the coup of his discovery by the camera out of nowhere. A precedent can be found in the shipwreck from Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange, perhaps. Like Cukor, Wyler is always ahead with his preparations. Like Losey, he has a certain sense of what is off-camera, and particularly of time passing.
The bomb shelter scene is the moment when Wyler and the film coincide, after which he goes beyond himself and the crew as well—note the cameraman’s difficulty achieving the tilt-and-pan from the podium to the awards table at the flower show. Hitchcock paid homage to this latter scene in Stage Fright, and it makes for a very touching episode of The Andy Griffith Show. Then comes the final air raid. Wyler’s discovery of the bullet holes in the car roof is surpassingly great, and the death scene that follows is bare naked truth.
The TV Guide of this latter day describes Mrs. Miniver as “heavy-handed” and Greer Garson’s performance as “mediocre.” Let’s not waste space on such fatuities, but rather remark the wonderful meeting of Vin and Carol. Wyler gets his camera around the table with Mr. and Mrs. Miniver in the background and the youngsters in the foreground to achieve a planar natural discourse between the generations so brilliant, effortless and understated it took him some time to develop it further in Friendly Persuasion.
Airmen scramble (Vin?) past a “Come to Germany” poster with a mustachioed female statue... There is a near-repetition of a scene from Pride and Prejudice with Dame May Whitty instead of Edna May Oliver. And then one speaks of carelessness, observe the scene where an exhausted Mr. Miniver hears tell of the German captured in his absence. Miniver rises from his bed by startled degrees, finally shaking off the blankets wrapped around his foot as he follows his wife into the dressing room. It seems careless enough, but Wyler films it with an intermittent pan every bit as exacting as M-G-M’s dance camera.
The Memphis Belle
A Story of a Flying Fortress
This is the first thing Wyler did after directing Mrs. Miniver, and his first view is of England. The camera is on a tripod, the key shot pans left to an airfield, separated by some shadowy verdure from the English countryside and village.
He shows the preparation for a bombing run over Germany, engine check, ordnance, briefing. He and his crew go aboard the lead B-17 and others (one of them was killed, Harold J. Tannenbaum).
The personal heroism he records is also his own, although that isn’t even mentioned, there are no credits, the flight crew is named, and the officers who give them a medal afterward. The King and Queen greet them, on the field.
There is a good explanation of the strategy, involving feints and gambits, behind a thousand-plane raid. The damage done to men and planes by flak and enemy fighters is rolled out by the 16mm camera, which also films smoke above the submarine pens of Wilhelmshaven, adding a still photo at the end with a tight pattern of bomb craters.
The narration gives many informative details. The score is uncommonly good, a Wyler score.
The Best Years of Our Lives
Wyler’s supreme accomplishment, thanks to Robert Sherwood’s script, but only by virtue of allowing him to express his formal complexities in an adequate instrument, rather than building the house entirely from scratch.
It derives its syntax from Citizen Kane and develops it further into a trifecta answering Godard’s Éloge de l’Amour, here are “the young, the old, and the adult”—the latter, as Godard notes, particularly in peril.
These are all one, and the imbrications of the action grant Wyler the grace to deeply breathe his individual contemplations.
Brown’s Anna Karenina is the formal root, the consequences extend to Boulez’ le marteau sans maître and beyond.
Critics fairly stumbled over themselves, Bosley Crowther in particular, to sing its praises justly. The Academy heaped honors.
Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice subsequently rated it “a work of humanitarian blackmail.”
James Agee found it “profoundly pleasing, moving, and encouraging.”
A girl of considerable wealth on Washington Square “a hundred years ago”.
The psychology of her plight is mirrored most acutely by Litvak in the snake pit, another fortunate occurrence at this time is Minnelli’s Madame Bovary giving the improvident beau who whizzes past in the night.
She is nearly cozened out of her life, twice, this Penelope at her embroidery, it ends, her occupation.
Bosley Crowther did his best with dull admiration (New York Times), Variety meant to praise it as “a museum piece”, Time Out Film Guide is highly amateur and hopeless (“highly professional and heartless”), Halliwell’s Film Guide finds it “generally pleasing”.
The material begins with Wyler as far back as These Three, where you find the original of “why don’t you clean up your own house, before you start to throw stones,” as well as Portia’s speech “standing on a chair”, as instructed by Sir Henry.
This is “the war”, the war on crime to be sure. Seaton had put the argument on film the year before in The Big Lift.
Many critics have noted Wyler’s influence, even to Lumet’s The Offence, in subsequent work.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times found an admirable spectacle that lacked “plausibility”, in his view. Variety saw “a cinematic gem.”
Tom Milne (Time Out Film Guide) couldn’t even follow the plot, let alone make sense of it.
The key scene of Mr. & Mrs. Hurstwood has Olivier in profil perdu from Wuthering Heights, the other general indicator is a determined Chaplinism centered on City Lights.
It will be noted that the technique only differs in Funny Girl by the use of color stock.
Literary criticism is the keynote of Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review, “a weak and distorted shadow” he finds, comparing the book (Hal Erickson of Rovi speaks of Dreiser’s “clumsy, unwieldy prose”).
Variety has “a literal adaptation... sometimes mawkish, frequently dated... somber, low-key entertainment.”
The Catholic News Service Media Review Office, “elaborate sudser”.
Leonard Maltin, “uneven turn-of-the-century soaper.”
Halliwell’s Film Guide, “the general effect is depressing.”
In a way, a response to Buñuel’s Él, in its systematic isolation and degradation for experimental purposes, except that Él was made the same year. The quiet, long-suffering Olivier strain is put to good use in long takes for which he is well-breathed.
It remains to mention Wellman’s A Star Is Born and Lewin’s The Moon and Sixpence, adding that the sendup of Chicago and New York from Columbia City, Missouri (“another one of my girls”) is very rich indeed, and that Welles expressed one regret about Citizen Kane, its satire of Marion Davies, furthermore that Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen is such another “comeuppance”, like The Heiress.
Hence De Palma’s film of the same title.
The privacy of Shakespeare, “outside should suffice for evidence.” Citizen Kane sets the ball rolling, even the mirrors (and from there to La dolce vita is Fellini’s secret).
For Wyler, Doctor Jack (Harold Lloyd) is the mark of comedy to follow, and he just gets in ahead of Rear Window by Hitchcock of the Chicago Daily News.
Van Gogh’s ear, the portrait of a lady, and Cellini at the Castel Sant’Angelo all go into How To Steal A Million, along with the mouth of truth and answered prayers. The entire thing is a comedy version of The Heiress, with a finale like Whitman on the podium (“you have seen me”), remembered by Bertolucci in The Last Emperor.
The Desperate Hours
The house resembles and recalls the one in Mrs. Miniver, that is sufficient cue for the metaphor of Occupation, it’s a return visit with a score to settle.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was greatly mystified by the liberties granted the occupiers under the hostage system, “it just doesn’t make too good sense.” Variety called the screenplay “an excellent adaptation.”
Time Out Film Guide sees “the paranoia lurking under the façade of the American dream”. Halliwell’s Film Guide finds it “ponderous” and cites Penelope Houston on “the mechanics of suspense.”
Filming plays is a peculiar forte of Wyler. He favors intense concentration on a dramatic nexus, and playwriting makes it more convenient as your characters are all before you, and interesting angles are there aplenty.
This is a crucial definition of Wyler’s art before The Big Country, where he coils up in a delicate situation before properly expanding in new freedom.
Nearly all the work is done before filming, Wyler has the Miniver family on set, as it were, he alters the location merely by considering the silent film comedians, from there it is but a step to Mark Twain, whose Sawyer or Finn is seen to fish beside the stream.
And there is the set, farm exteriors, meeting house, with studio interiors. The casting is deliberate and careful only once, noticeably, Anthony Perkins is planted in the difficult role of Josh for comfort.
This monumental set-up covers most of the filming, too. There are only a few little points to be made, finally, and they are small adjustments of the Quaker viewpoint as it is expressed in various circumstances by various persons, to give an idea and allow it to freely act.
The varieties of religious experience, then, including the Methodists down the road. Representatives of every manifestation are found.
Wyler’s material is like Renoir’s humanity self-deceived, self-limited. His survey of this realm leads to the grand underlying structure on a theme of harmony from discord, love from hate, and the organ in the attic.
The rebel raid occasions the farmer taking up his rifle for a son, the farmer’s wife receives her guests fulsomely, a Union soldier loves the daughter.
The young boy of the house can’t get along with the pet goose, Samantha. The neighbor’s horse trumps the trotter to church or meeting, until the crafty farmer swaps with the ladies for one that won’t be beat, etc.
The Big Country
A striking view of the essential situation in Jezebel from an enforced position outside, as simple as that.
The Big Country is far better known by its vast influence on ensuing films than in itself, which is not so much a pity as a pleasure deferred. Here is the Wyler hero, caricatured by Gene Wilder in Robert Aldrich’s The Frisco Kid, the genuinely sane and capable man who finds himself walking into Johnny Guitar or, as T.S. Eliot described himself at a Postwar German conference, seated on the dais between two vociferous men who argued ultimate philosophy at the tops of their voices over him.
Crowther and Halliwell have “pretensions” in their reviews.
The precise weight of Roman authority in Judea. The end of it is a centurion rebuked by the presence of Christ.
As filmed by Wyler from Tunberg’s excellent screenplay, the war.
The Roman interlude is where the ways meet.
The devastation of Roman authority.
Heston’s performance begins as the perfect fool who doesn’t know what Rome is.
Judah Ben-Hur seizes the whip hand at the games in Jerusalem, “the people’s one true god.”
The Valley of the Lepers, the Sermon on the Mount.
Trial and Crucifixion (Wyler’s onlookers have a balcony seat in the theater, as at the beginning).
Blood of the Lamb.
The Children’s Hour
Two dull girls at school playing Mozart, dully, at the start.
Enter the doctor.
A little girl wants in on the act.
A more than brilliant masterpiece.
Furie takes his analysis (The Circle, also released as The Fraternity), a major work, from the blackmail sorority called here “The Inner Circle”.
Your philistine is not greatly aided by the presence of art or the artist. A registered nurse is more in the line of work needed.
Wyler’s most hopeless and sardonic film, or nearly.
Filmed in two places at once, London and Hollywood.
The Phantom of the Opera, principally. Hammer horror, Universal horror. The Night Has Eyes, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Une femme douce, Gothic, variously.
How To Steal A Million
John Williams’ excellently inspired score manages in its second theme to include Pictures at an Exhibition.
The central relation is to Roman Holiday. On either side, Edmund Goulding’s Mister 880 and Orson Welles’ F for Fake. The creative act is depicted à la the Cocteau/Halsman photograph of that title.
Much close work pertaining to this and other matters elicits a factual homage to Hitchcock. “Ring out, wild bells,” says Tennyson quoted here (“ring out the false, ring in the true”).
The anonymous buyer at the art auction gets his Cézanne portrait, the computer manufacturer and general factotum his Cellini Venus, the South American collector his Van Gogh, forgeries all.
The private dick gets the girl.
Art’s a lot, life’s not, as the saying goes, a pretty despicable proposition.
The artiste withdraws, leaving the field open.
Not a weak film spotlighting Barbra Streisand (pace the critics) but a great film biography of Fanny Brice, to whom every attention is paid.
The remarkable opening scene reproduces the final shootout of The Westerner, with Brice in nearly all the roles.
The Liberation of L.B. Jones
A case that doesn’t come to court, a divorce action on grounds of adultery, the corespondent kills the plaintiff for fear of being named.
The corollary is a murder for vengeance that leaves blood on the hands.
There is a parallel to Kazan’s On the Waterfront and Lang’s Man Hunt in Wyler’s filming, the strong point of which is a hundred niceties amid the construction.
“Violent, pointless” (Halliwell’s Film Guide).
“I must say I wasn’t bored, just depressed” (Vincent Canby, New York Times).
“Not much more than an interracial sexploitation film” (Variety).
“A grim demonstration of the inadequacies of liberal compromise over the institutional conflicts of class and colour” (Time Out Film Guide).
“Probably the most powerful, if not the most sophisticated, race-war film the commercial studios have yet produced” (Nigel Andrews, Monthly Film Bulletin).