Baker, Black, Bloom and Stevens, Dieterle, Howard

Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, 2016). This feather-light documentary is mostly valuable in its accidental ability to fulfill the the heartsick desire for affectionate remembrances of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds following their deaths in December, shockingly arriving with the crack dramatic timing of a veteran pair of performers. Directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens occasional approach insightful examination of the scalding heat endured by those helplessly drawn to the spotlight, but their hearts don’t really seem invested in probing too far into darker corners. The film might have only a modest purpose, but it serves it well.

Inferno (Roy Ward Baker, 1953). A survival saga with a nasty streak, Inferno was part of the 3D movie craze in the nineteen-fifties, though it doesn’t betray much visual contortion to exploit the technology, at least until it goes a little bonkers at the end. Instead, it’s mostly lean and cunning, telling the story of a tycoon (Robert Ryan) who’s left to die in the desert after breaking his leg, his wife (Rhonda Fleming) and her lover (William Lundigan) hoping for an easy way to knock down on the sides of their problematic love triangle.  The wealthy man perseveres, though, cobbling together just enough makeshift tools to her him arduously crawl through his inhospitable surroundings. Given the copyright date of the film, the machinations in Francis Cockrell’s screenplay are surprisingly sound, and Roy Ward Baker directs with a useful restraint and patience. Bleached by sunlight rather than soaked in shadows, the film nonetheless successful adopts the toughened texture of the era’s stronger film noir outings.

The Nice Guys (Shane Black, 2016). After a longer succession of fitfully successful cinematic tumbles over the years, Shane Black finally formulates the perfect project for his bloodied bubble gum sensibility. Just the choice of setting his twisty detective story in the sordidness of nineteen-seventies Los Angeles proves to be the missing masterstroke he’s always needed. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling play a pair of scruffy gumshoes — at differing levels of officialness and respectability — who reluctantly team up to solve a mystery involving a dead porno actress (Murielle Telio) and a missing girl (Margaret Qualley). Black’s story is devilishly crafty and his direction presents the material with precisely calibrated comic verve. Crowe is an especially engaging presence in the film. He’s added girth in his middle age years, but it’s magically made him lighter and defter than ever before.

The Trial of Vivienne Ware (William K. Howard, 1932). A lurid and delightfully unhinged crime and courtroom drama, this pre-Code film operates with a briskness that suggests everyone involved is rushing so as not to miss an afternoon bus. The title character (Joan Bennett) is accused of killing her fiancé in a fit of jealous rage. The trial unfolds with the requisites twists and turns, but the drama is amped up to operatic absurdity (there are not one but two violent assaults on witnesses as they testify in open court). Adding to the pleasure is a sly commentary on the salacious pleasure the voyeuristic media takes in turning the whole spectacle into bang-bang entertainment.

6 Hours to Live (William Dieterle, 1932). This film has the kind of premise that classic Hollywood scribes could often spin into a feverish wonder. Warner Baxter plays a diplomat from the fictional country of Sylvaria. He’s attending a global trade summit where he’s expected to cast the sole dissenting vote, scuttling a wide-ranging pact. Then he’s murdered. Fortuitously, a slightly kooky scientist (George Marion) has just invented a device that can resurrect the recently deceased, though only for six hours. In that sliver of time, the revived diplomat seeks revenge and delivers the effective veto of the trade deal. It should be unpredictable fun, but the movie is solemn where it should careen, leaving it strangely inert.

 

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