High-Strung Howard Hughes Swoops and Soars in The Aviator

Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, from a screenplay by John Logan, has evoked in its earliest reviews a bemused sense of surprise: How did it come out so well, considering all the decline-and-fall scenarios swirling around Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein, frustratingly Oscar-deprived Martin Scorsese and currently less-than- Titanic-sized box-office draw Leonardo DiCaprio?

It’s been suggested, by Todd McCarthy in Variety and David Thomson in this publication, that Warren Beatty would have been better cast as Howard Hughes (in an aborted production over 20 years ago) than Mr. DiCaprio is today. Mr. Scorsese himself was reportedly second choice to direct the Hughes biopic after Michael Mann passed on the project, though Mr. Mann did stay on as one of the co-producers.

Furthermore, overfamiliar film faces and voices belonging to such bygone luminaries of the silver screen as Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Errol Flynn and Jean Harlow are mimicked in The Aviator by Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Jude Law and Gwen Stefani, respectively. This is never a good idea, since it gives film critics a free pass to show off how much they know about old movies by blasting the new generation of performers. As it turns out, Ms. Blanchett’s version of Kate is formidable in its own right, and Mr. Law’s parody of Flynn is wickedly amusing.

It’s too early to tell whether The Aviator will avoid the dismally anticlimactic fate of Gangs of New York (2002), but I liked and enjoyed it, and I’m willing to bet that a sizable portion of the public will, too. For one thing, it’s a lot of fun at a time when serious fun on the screen is in short supply. For another, Mr. DiCaprio grows into the part of Howard Hughes, nervous breakdowns and all, in a way he never managed to do in Gangs of New York, in which he was supposedly maturing in his role. Though Alec Baldwin as Juan Trippe of Pan Am, the bitter rival of Hughes at T.W.A., gives an authoritative performance, he doesn’t eclipse Mr. DiCaprio as Daniel Day-Lewis did in Gangs of New York.

The Aviator begins much like Oliver Stone’s Alexander, with a watchful mother bathing her naked little boy while warning him about all the perils he will encounter in the wicked, unclean world, with “unclean” being the operative evil against which Hughes struggled throughout his troubled and fastidious life. In his fanatical search for a germ-free environment, he became a legendary recluse in his later years. The Aviator takes Hughes part of the way, though far from all of the way, to his eventual madness. The film ends instead on a curiously quixotic though manifestly triumphant note, with the aviator’s successful flight of the world’s biggest flying machine-the Hercules, or Spruce Goose-if only a few feet over the waters of Long Beach Harbor. The rest of the film consists largely of a celebration of the wild period from the late 20′s through the mid-40′s, during which Hughes became a record-setting legend in the celebrity-crazed worlds of aviation and Hollywood, with a combination of both in Hell’s Angels (1930).

Between all the pioneering aerial footage, both on- and offscreen, and all the massive partying in Hollywood night spots like the Cocoanut Grove, Mr. Scorsese keeps The Aviator in rollicking motion to a steady beat provided by the pop music of different eras. Though the successful premiere of Hell’s Angels at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, with large model planes dangling over Hollywood Boulevard and a crowd estimated at 500,000 people, supposedly provided the inspiration for Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, Mr. Scorsese stays away from sociological sermons on the deluded masses enthralled by the escapades of Hollywood celebrities and billionaire playboys like Hughes. Contemporary moviegoers who profess to be sickened by the current gossip columns celebrating a world of overpaid C.E.O.’s, rampaging, night-crawling trust-fund babies, violent athletes and homicidally inclined musical groups can console themselves with Mr. Scorsese’s spectacle of social misbehavior as far back as 75 years ago.

Mr. Scorsese and Mr. Logan grant Hughes a full measure of sympathy and understanding, especially when he visits old-money liberal Hepburn in Connecticut (with all her blue-state smugness), as well as in the movie’s portrayal of the venal, hypocritical Senator Ralph Owen Brewster of Maine (Alan Alda). By the same token, the film overlooks the darker side of Hughes’ casting-couch proclivities, which led him to wreck the careers of the insufficiently “cooperative” Jane Greer and Jean Simmons. But as I said, The Aviator is great fun, whatever the proportion of truth to fiction.

A French Epic

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement ( Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles), from a screenplay by Mr. Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant, based on the novel by Sébastien Japrisot, has created a mini-scandal in La-La Land after being disqualified as the Best Foreign-Language Picture nominee for France (it missed the deadline for nominations). Indeed, Mr. Jeunet’s oddly romantic epic is the closest thing I’ve seen this year to a French-language Hollywood-type super-production, and it’s far superior to most of its current competition when it comes to epic scope.

Audrey Tautou plays a country girl named Mathilde, who’s acquired a permanent limp after having been afflicted with infant polio in the early years of the 20th century. Gaspard Ulliel’s Manech, son of a lighthouse keeper, is her childhood lover. Manech is called to war in 1914 and, soon after, Mathilde is informed of his apparent death in battle. Refusing to believe it, Mathilde begins an insanely systematic search for him that takes up almost the entire film, together with innumerable flashbacks.

The film begins as if it were a recapitulation of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Five French soldiers have been convicted of self-mutilation and sentenced to execution by being thrust out of the trenches toward the heavily fortified German trenches. No support comes from their own side because of trench warfare, and this becomes the dominant text in the narrative, along with the undying love shared by Mathilde and Manech.

There’s a shaggy-dog investigation conducted by a whimsical detective named Pire (Ticky Holgado) and an elegant turn in French by Jodie Foster as Elodie Gordes. Ms. Foster plays a faithful wife to a now-sterile husband, who urges her to sleep with his best friend so she can give him a sixth child that’ll automatically get him out of the trenches. She falls in love with the best friend and doesn’t even become pregnant in the process. Both men subsequently die at the front, deadly enemies to the end. This is characteristic of the recurringly dark humor of the piece. But it would take forever to synopsize the monstrously tangled plot. All I can say is that I was profoundly moved by the ultimate solution and resolution of the many mysteries embedded in the adventures of Mathilde. Paris and rural France of the early 1900′s have been lovingly recreated by Mr. Jeunet and his army of artists and technicians. This is a picture well worth seeing, regardless of whether it’s up for an Oscar.

Keatonesque

Davide Ferrario’s After Midnight ( Dopo Mezzanotte) is a profoundly simple love story with a very complex visual strategy, in which the cavernous Museum of Cinema in Turin, Italy, plays a dominant part in its fictional transformation into the Magical Mole Antonelliana, in which the ghost of Buster Keaton inspires night watchman Martino (Giorgio Pasotti) to pursue Amanda, the girl of his dreams, and claim her from Fabio Troiano’s The Angel of Falchera. The film is slight but unobtrusively exquisite, much like Keaton himself.

More Noir Nights

The “Essential Noir” parade of American film classics at Film Forum continues to excite and enthrall audiences with its top-bargain double bills, beginning this week with John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941). The film stars Humphrey Bogart as Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Mary Astor as the mysterious femme fatale Brigid O’Shaugnessy, Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo and Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer the gunsel. The film also features Ward Bond, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Gladys George, Jerome Cowan and Walter Huston in an inside-joke cameo decades before the nouvelle vague directors made intrusions into the narrative an eventually facetious mannerism.

Huston’s Falcon is actually a remake of Roy Del Ruth’s not-so-bad pre-Code 1931 Maltese Falcon, with Ricardo Cortez’s Spade more of a full-time womanizer than Bogart’s. (Bebe Daniels had top billing as the lady of intrigue.) A 1936 version with Bette Davis and Warren William, directed by William Dieterle under the more whimsical title Satan Met a Lady, has since been mercifully forgotten.

Also on the bill is Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire (1942), which made Alan Ladd’s deadpan hit man a noir star (though lawman Robert Preston had top billing), with Veronica Lake cast as the girl because she was one of the few actresses under contract at Paramount shorter than Ladd. The script, by W.R. Burnett and Albert Maltz, was an anti-fascist adaptation of Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale. Laird Cregar heads the supporting cast, which also includes Tully Marshall, Marc Lawrence and Pamela Blake (Thursday, Dec. 9).

Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) doesn’t sizzle as much as its supposedly chemistry-set casting of John Garfield and Lana Turner promised in their roles as two adulterous lovers who murder the woman’s husband (the miscast Cecil Kellaway). James M. Cain’s original novel was altered in the censor-hobbled screenplay by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch. Defense attorney Hume Cronyn thereby steals the show with his courtroom pyrotechnics at the expense of prosecutor Leon Ames. Also in the cast: Audrey Totter, Alan Reed and Wally Cassell.

The second feature, as was often the case in the old days, is far superior to the first. Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947) may be regarded as the director’s ritualistic murder of Rita Hayworth, his former wife. The film is very uneven, narratively speaking, and wildly overdirected, overwritten and overacted, but features several set pieces of directorial genius. Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders, Ted de Corsia, Erskine Sanford and Gus Schilling bring a dazzling degree of boisterous theatricality to the screen that is quintessentially Wellesian (Friday and Saturday, Dec. 10 and 11).

Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) introduced Burt Lancaster to the movies as the victim of two hit men (William Conrad and Charles McGraw) right out of Ernest Hemingway’s terse, idiomatic short story. The rest of the film is a mystery-solving series of flashbacks that are less Hemingway than Hellinger (Mark, the producer) and screenwriter Anthony Veiller (with a rumored contribution by John Huston). The film is held together by Miklós Rózsa’s driving score and the crisp acting of Edmond O’Brien, Ava Gardner, Sam Levene, Albert Dekker, Virginia Christine, Vince Barnett, John Miljan, Charles D. Brown, Donald MacBride and Phil Brown.

Also on the bill is Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946), starring Glenn Ford, George Macready, Joseph Calleia and Steven Geray. Rita Hayworth’s steamy rendition of “Put the Blame on Mame” (though her voice was dubbed) has eclipsed the rest of the narrative in people’s memories. It’s just as well, since Nazis-in-South-America barely registers on the Richter scale; nor does Ford’s half-hearted, time-killing sadistic control over Hayworth. Her character is the essence of what film savant Parker Tyler designated as the “good-bad” girl, a creature that allowed Hollywood movies to have their cheesecake and eat it, too (Sunday and Monday, Dec. 12 and 13).

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe rules the roost at both ends of the double bill, with Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946) and Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944). Humphrey Bogart is Marlowe in the Hawks film, and ex-crooner Dick Powell does the honors in the Dmytryk. Both bone-crushing thrillers are awash with luscious babes, The Big Sleep with Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone and Peggy Knudsen, while Murder, My Sweet makes do with Claire Trevor and Anne Shirley (though both are more dominant in shaping the plot than all four dames in the Hawks film). Chandler himself preferred Murder, My Sweet, but most people prefer The Big Sleep for its less vulnerable protagonist. The Hawks cast includes John Ridgeley, Louis Jean Heydt, Regis Toomey, Bob Steele and, of course, Elisha Cook Jr. (as memorable as ever). Otto Kruger, Mike Mazurki and Miles Mander complete the cast for Murder, My Sweet, a more expressionist noir than Sleep, though the latter is funnier (Tuesday, Dec. 14).

Fritz Lang tops off the week with two of his most effective, expressionistic Hollywood noir thrillers: The Woman in the Window (1945) with Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea and Raymond Massey, and The Big Heat (1953), with Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin and (in one of her few memorable roles) Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s sister. Window is largely a comic shaggy-dog story about murder and blackmail, whereas Heat is almost Wagnerian in its vengeful intensity, with boiling coffee scalding faces in an updating of Kriemhild’s Revenge (Wednesday and Thursday, Dec. 18 and 19).