Sleuth (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1972). This first film version of Anthony Shaffer’s play made it to screens a mere two years after the original work’s New York premiere. Given the cunning narrative duplicity at work in the story, it’s no wonder there was a rush to adapt it before the many secrets contained therein could ripple too far from the theatrical community. But deceptions that work onstage don’t necessarily bear up to the closer scrutiny of the camera, and that itself can intrude upon the necessary suspension of disbelief given the characters are able to investigate with even greater intimacy. Sleuth is enjoyably playful and gamely acted by something of a British thespian dream team, but it begins to seem like little more than an cheeky exercise (albeit a fairly ingenious one) before the end. The greatest achievement in the entire film is the overstuffed set, courtesy of production designer Ken Adam.
42 (Brian Helgeland, 2013). This biopic of the trailblazing ballplayer Jackie Robinson starts off stuffy and pat. Then, quite unexpectedly, it gradually becomes more engaging as it progresses, partially because settling into the grind of a major league season snaps it out of the more conventional track of such a film. Instead of hitting familiar beats, writer-director Helgeland focuses on telling incidents, including the racist taunting of other players and managers as well as the tentative camaraderie of Robinson’s Dodger teammates. Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson with the requisite surplus of dignity, but also with an earthiness and tightly suppressed temper that lends greater depth. Though there are plenty of problems — led by Harrison Ford’s growly turn as Branch Rickey — 42 is notably better that it could have been, and maybe should have been.
East Side, West Side (Mervyn LeRoy, 1949). This melodrama centered on wealthy infidelity has some of the pounding gracelessness that was all too rife in the timeframe, as the early passions of Hollywood filmmaking were starting to atrophy ahead of the storytelling revolution still a generation away. It’s fun to watch James Mason apply his arid class to a resolutely oily character. As his spurned wife, Barbara Stanwyck is at the cusp of her shift from a piercing, incisive actress to one who relied a little bit more on aggravated bluster than was totally ideal. LeRoy’s direction is largely perfunctory, with maybe a hint of a wry sense of humor. It could have used a hint more.
Outrage (Ida Lupino, 1950). The film that is arguably Ida Lupino’s most famous directorial effort addressed rape and the cruel aftereffects of such a crime, from lingering emotional agony to the casual ways society revictimizes those who’ve been assaulted. It has a bracing frankness in every respect except for an era-mandated reticence to actually use the word “rape.” If the acting is a little stiff, it actually sort of works for the film, heightening the sense that this is a standard Hollywood issues picture with very non-standard subject matter. More than anything else, it’s Lupino’s utter fearlessness that defines and elevates the film.
Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934). The first film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s classic 1915 novel is severely hampered by the limitations of its cinematic age, most evident in the necessary fragmenting that occurs in trying to condense a weighty novel into a ninety minute feature confined by the recently minted Motion Picture Production Code. The fussy direction of John Cromwell, indulging in every visual trick at his disposal, only accentuates the way the storytelling races past major developments. Leslie Howard is particularly ill-served as the male lead, looking a little lost and underfed as the turbulence of his character’s struggles buffets him across the years. Of course, that impression could be shaped as much by the contrast with Bette Davis, obviously certain that she’s got an uncommonly meaty role as the conniving woman who exploits the dopily kind-hearted man who unaccountably adores her and fully committed to busting out of the screen with a vicious whirlwind of a performance.